IDEO is already widely known for the innovation it has brought to large companies. Now the design firm is hoping to do the same for start-ups. 

The 21-year-old firm announced Wednesday that it will host a “Start-up in Residence” program beginning this fall in its Chicago office. While IDEO generally works with larger companies like AT&T and Bank of America, its focus has always been the “earliest stages of evolution,” according to its website.

The idea for the program grew organically. IDEO sponsored a summer accelerator program at Excelerate Labs in Chicago in 2011. There, a few staffers discovered a promising start-up working on a restaurant menu app. When the program ended, IDEO decided to invite the team to continue working on the idea from its Chicago office. IDEO offered mentoring and helped the team create a robust API and a social media presence. After 18 weeks and one pivot, Food Genius emerged as a company focused on providing the food industry with real-time data on trends.

IDEO declared its first foray into start-up mentoring a success--although it's unclear how the firm measures success. Now it's looking to mentor and invest in more seed-stage startups. According to the site, the company will provide accepted start-ups with resources and ongoing advisory services, as well as facilitate industry and investing connections. IDEO will take an undetermined stake in the companies.

Now that applications are open, the hard part is picking the promising few: Five finalists will be narrowed down to just one winner.

“Our initial reaction as designers is ‘I want to make that great’, so we have to find a balance with that,” IDEO Senior Partner Owen Rogers told the audience Wednesday at VentureBeat’s MobileBeat conference in San Francisco. 

Despite the heavy emphasis on mentoring, IDEO insists that its program is not an incubator. 

“We’re not an incubator. But we believe that design built into an organization will help build the types of companies that will help change the world,” Partner Iain Roberts told Fast Company. “My experience in this field is, too often people are interested in raising the capital to grow, rather than building a great product that will build a great audience.”  

Basically, Roberts says, the accepted applicants will become IDEO employees. They won’t have to attend speaker sessions or lessons--a common practice within incubators--but they will have access to the small-group design work already in place at IDEO. This innovation method, says Roberts, is similar to the feeling of a start-up.

Applications are due by July 15.