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Chicago Tech Leaders Weigh in on How to Navigate COVID-19

(iStock.com/Chansom Pantip)

The Executives’ Club of Chicago recently held a conversation discussing what differentiates Chicago as a place to found and grow a company – and the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on local entrepreneurship.

Bill Payne, executive director of science and technology at Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation moderated the discussion, which touched on several complex issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, social unrest, and systemic racism.

“These are challenging times,” said Payne. “I think that there’s recognition now and hopefully it will lend itself to more diversity and more opportunities, because that’s really the crux of the issues here.”

For Steven Collens, CEO of the Chicago-based healthcare incubator, MATTER, the question is if this is going to be a moment in history or a turning point: “We’re going to see some real intentional efforts – it may take a while … it’s not overnight.”

“It’s a public health disaster; it’s an economic disaster; but it also will turn out to be one of the most important drivers of healthcare innovation that we’ve ever seen,” he said, speaking to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The race to find solutions has shaved years off the adoption curve of many types of technology, Collens noted. Specifically, technology that brings healthcare providers and patients together, like telehealth and remote monitoring.

“We’re seeing a lot of startup companies really accelerating their businesses right now and growing very quickly in response to that,” he said. According to Collens, investment in certain areas of digital health has skyrocketed this year – it has been the best first half of the year, ever, for digital health investment.

“The opportunity to gain traction right now if you’re solving an immediate problem – is very significant,” Collens added, noting that decision-making processes at large entities have accelerated for COVID response technologies. “This is an area where entrepreneurs can make a big difference and move very rapidly to plug holes,” he said.

From the perspective as an investor, Tasha Seitz, a partner at Impact Engine, said there has been “tremendous energy” around solving today’s most pressing issues. “We are going to need a lot of innovation to address the very significant challenges ahead of us in health, education, and economic disparity and racial issues,” she said.

Still, the landscape has changed dramatically for a lot of companies as priorities shift, and while this has created new opportunities for some, for others, Seitz said, “it’s going to be difficult to get the attention and budget to move forward.”

“There are going to be a lot of challenges ahead for a lot of companies,” added Seitz, “but I do think there is a great need for innovation and I’m encouraged by the activities I’ve seen.”

Entrepreneurship in Chicago

Chicago-based employees, especially compared to Silicon Valley, and other larger cities, generally more company loyalty and change jobs less often, said Collens.

“People don’t stay in jobs for very long [in Silicon Valley],” Collens added. “We don’t see that nearly as much here.” The cost of hiring is also significantly less, as a reflection of the lower cost of living. Additionally, Silicon Valley “can be a bit of an echo chamber” and Chicago “is much more what I would consider the real world,” he noted.

As an impact investor, Seitz noted the importance of collegiality and collaboration that is seen in the Midwest. “I think that’s very much part of the value system that’s here and the community cares about that,” Seitz said.

Smita Shah, president and CEO of SPAAN Tech, a minority-owned engineering and construction management firm, also cited the quality of life and cost of doing business in the city, which she said has “always been really attractive.”

“We connect east to west and the globe from where we are,” Shah said, adding that the diversity in Chicago’s population is “unrivaled.” At SPAAN Tech, which is made up of more than 55% minorities, she said this diversity makes the company better and more responsive to their clients: “Diversity is a competitive advantage – you innovate better, you think better.”

Shah, who served on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, also spoke to the pandemic’s impact on people of color, who have seen a disproportionate amount of cases.

“This pandemic has impacted the diverse communities and the people who cannot afford to have these problems worse than anyone else,” she said, “It’s eye-opening – the need for equity is more than ever highlighted.”

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