CHICAGO (Reuters.com) - Phillip Leslie needed software coders to develop mobile applications for his fledgling startup, ProOnGo LLC, which offers a solution to keep track of business receipts on a smartphone, using the device's built-in camera. The cash-strapped Chicago entrepreneur put out a job listing at the Illinois Institute of Technology; within a few days he was flooded with more than 100 applications.
"We got more resumes than we could sort through," said Leslie, who added he has employed 11 IIT student programmers.
Student interest in mobile computing was so great, the university developed a makeshift lab focused on developing applications for devices such as Apple's iPhone and iPad, and phones using Google's Android operating system. It also has attracted businesses like ProOnGo, which helps keep students apprised of how the competitive market for mobile computing works.
"We're a company that's really powered by the classroom," said Leslie, who has re-located his nine-person operation alongside other startups in IIT's technology park, where six student engineers are currently part of the staff. "In many ways we benefit from all the work that people do here."
At present, some 70 students throughout the university touch the mobile computing world in some facet, taking classes in iPhone and Android software programing or working on real-word applications such as a mobile identifier of flora and fauna for a local zoo and an app that reproduces police-like field-sobriety tests to help prevent drunk driving.
Involvement is not limited to one field of expertise, but intersects several educational disciplines, including business, engineering and even humanities, which now offers a course of study in technical communications.
"I want this to be a resource for whatever the students are looking for," said Nik Rokop, managing director of IIT's Jules F. Knapp Entrepreneurship Center, an affiliate of the university's Stuart School of Business, and host to the mobile app lab.
"We have classes, we have the IPRO (Interprofessional Projects Program) program; we have this kind of co-curricular activity which hopefully results in business, and we have the actual businesses," he said. "We have the whole continuum. Students, faculty, alumni and tech park tenants can get the resources they need."
The enthusiasm for mobile computing was evident on a recent day at the center, which is housed at the university's sprawling campus on Chicago's south side. Students milled about the informal lab space, munching on take-out at their computers while providing demos of projects such as the IIT Navigator, a mobile app that provides maps, current event listings and access to the campus radio station for the university community.
"We're trying to focus and build expertise," said Nikhil Mandrekar, 24, who runs the lab and recently graduated from the school's business administration and applied science program. "We get clients from all over the place."
The lab students' own preferences for mobile devices spanned the market spectrum, including iPhones, BlackBerrys and Android phones as well as more traditional cellphones.
Rokop, who serves as mentor to the students, said part of his role involves linking the university's technology developments to Chicago's broader business community. He came up with the idea for the lab last October and it quickly caught on. With minimal investment, it has already sparked broader university awareness; one professor just ordered 30 iPads for a programing class.
"I tend to be a catalyst," Rokop said. "This kind of activity brings in professors and brings in more students."
Technology experts said the school's foray into mobile computing is on the cutting edge, as not many universities have yet to develop practical skill-based curricula that can be directly applied to the market.
"I think it's really innovative," said Mark Suster, a partner with GRP, a Los Angeles-based venture capital firm focused on technology investments.
"The mobile environment is different," Suster said, noting that developing applications for mobile environments calls for awareness of issues such as the limitations of battery power and the need to operate on lower bandwidths. "Any institution that understands how is definitely ahead of most universities."
Despite the market's promise, students can see firsthand there's no easy road to developing a successful app. Leslie's company, ProOnGo, was originally born out of a new venture contest at the University of Chicago's MBA program some three years ago; it is still not profitable, despite its software being selected as the top choice among expense programs for BlackBerry users since last July. Leslie said he hopes to be cash flow positive by the end of the year.
"Our plan from the beginning was to support as many different smart phones as we could," he said. "It's a lot of work, especially when you're doing mobile business-to-business apps."