DeepTechU Day 1: ‘The Innovation Ecosystem in the Chicago Area is Growing Beautifully – Go All In’

“We’re excited to unite the science and investor communities to advance innovation,” said Juan de Pablo, executive vice president for science, innovation, national laboratories, and global initiatives, kicking off this year’s DeepTechU Conference.

“The Midwest is in a unique position to lead in deep tech… We have a bright future,” added de Pablo, who also provides oversight of entrepreneurship and innovation activities at the University’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which organizes the annual event in collaboration with other university partners.

Jay Schrankler, associate vice president and head of the Polsky Center, moderated the day’s first panel discussion, which examined the pipeline of university-based research in deep tech and the necessary components to successfully launch new ventures out of academia.

“Attracting attention in the Midwest can seem difficult – but I’d like to say the science speaks for itself,” said Nichole Mercier, Washington University at St. Louis, assistant vice chancellor and managing director for technology transfer. Still, the ability to connect through video – the adoption and proliferation of virtual meetings – has led to an increase in venture capital, she noted.

Another challenge in developing any innovation pipeline is talent. Alicia Loffler, Northwestern University, associate provost and associate vice president, executive director of innovation and new ventures office, said that there are two types of leadership needed to advance university-based research: translational and managerial. “You need someone who has experience, who can see around the corners in the development process, and who has the right instincts,” she explained. “Especially with deep disruptive technologies, there isn’t a specific roadmap.”

Having the right team in place was a theme echoed in the second panel discussion, which also featured leaders in the technology transfer space. Erik Iverson, CEO of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), explained that both the team and the technology need to be validated by the market. “Validation only truly occurs in an unbiased way through venture funds,” he added.

Establishing partners, such as those with venture capital firms, as well as with industry, other research institutions, and others, is another key part of the equation – and in technology transfer and commercialization there are many different customers and stakeholders to engage.

“The extent of the players that are involved in creating a successful startup ecosystem is extensive,” said Cheryl Turnbull, senior director at the Kennan Center for Entrepreneurship, Ohio State University.

Customers also come in different categories, said Mohammad Shahidehpour, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), professor and director, Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation. Mainly, faculty, who are the first customer, according to Simran Trana, associate vice president, innovation and commercialization, Indiana University.

Turnbull expanded on this agreeing that faculty, as well as students, are one set of customers, but on the “other side of the equation,” so are potential talent, funding sources, and companies, which help validate technologies or become the first customers of the university-founded startups.

‘Deep Tech and the Great Wave of Innovation’

Nancy Sullivan, CEO and managing director of Illinois Ventures, introduced the keynote address, noting the strong momentum in Illinois of “working together and finding ways to create companies across our university systems.”

“When you come to Chicago… you’re not seeing one institution at a time, we’re together in an economy as well as a community that is committed to growing the entire ecosystem,” she said.

University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos began the keynote by explaining that all universities have three things that they seek to do in different ways.

“Fundamentally, all of the universities seek to provide students with transformative educational experiences” and are “dedicated to trying to shape and define new fields of knowledge,” said Alivisatos. “We want those new fields of knowledge and the education to come together and have an impact on society… addressing so of the deepest challenges that society faces.”

Entrepreneurship and innovation bring together these goals in a “very focused way,” he explained, citing three areas that are today addressing societal challenges: quantum, biosciences and biotechnology, and climate and energy.

Importantly, no one piece of the innovation ecosystem in a region is able to make significant advances alone, said Alivisatos. “It’s really through the combined efforts that we see the possibilities emerging.”

As part of this, for an innovation ecosystem to succeed, one of the characteristics “invariably present” is the existence of multiple research universities engaging in a common area, he said. “For our ecosystem to be successful it requires a great deal of cooperation between universities, national labs, venture capital, existing large corporations, and also governments,” added Alivisatos.

“The Innovation ecosystem in the Chicago area is growing beautifully,” he concluded. “Go all in.”

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