‘It’s Remarkable’: Deep Tech Ventures Summit Showcases Innovation in the Midwest

The Deep Tech Ventures Summit was held in Chicago on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Photos by Matt Marton)

Nearly 350 attendees, 23 speakers, and 22 startups came together to explore various topics across the quantum, data science and AI, cleantech, and life sciences space at the Deep Tech Ventures Summit.

The event was hosted by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which has helped generate more than 600 companies that have raised $10 billion in capital.

“You’re going to see the power of that platform when you hear from the accelerator companies today,” said Samir Mayekar, associate vice president and managing director of the Polsky Center kicking off Deep Tech Ventures Summit.

“It’s our job to help make sure we are hearing new ideas and technologies from the University of Chicago ecosystem and helping bring those to the world,” said Mayekar.

“The energy here… it’s remarkable.”

– Satyajeet Salgar, MBA ’07, Google AI

Juan de Pablo, executive vice president for Science, Innovation, National Laboratories, and Global Initiatives also stressed this mission: “At the University of Chicago, we are deeply committed to advancing fundamental research and development in field defining areas,” he noted as part of the opening remarks.

“We are addressing global challenges – areas where you cannot wait 20 years for breakthroughs to materialize,” said de Pablo. “You need to solve the climate problem now. We need to cure cancer now. And you don’t do that without entrepreneurship and without innovation and without entities like the Polsky Center and everyone in this room.”

Chicago Booth alums and founders Sheila Mikhail, MBA ’93, and Jennifer Fried, MBA ’15, led the morning keynote.

The Entrepreneur’s Journey

The morning keynote featured two female entrepreneurs, Jennifer Fried, MBA ’15, CEO and cofounder of Flow Medical, and Sheila Mikhail, MBA ’93, adviser and cofounder of Asklepios BioPharmaceutical (AskBio).

Mikhail, who has 20 years of biopharmaceutical leadership experience, discussed her journey and shared advice for fellow entrepreneurs in the audience.

“You have two choices when there is no funding – you either give up or you find a way,” she explained. And Mikhail found a way, which included writing “a lot of grants” and tapping into venture philanthropy, among other avenues to secure investments.

“In a startup environment you do everything,” she added. “If the trash needs to be taken out, you do that. If there is a problem with the computers, you fix it.” For Mikhail, she enjoyed the fast-paced early stages, and myriad roles, though she noted it is not for everyone.

“Different roles require different skills,” she explained, so in looking out for the best interest of the company, it can be necessary to pass the baton to keep things moving.

Mikhail served as the CEO of AskBio until March 2023, during which time she built the company to over 349 employees operating in five countries. In December 2020, she led the negotiation of the $4 billion AskBio acquisition by Bayer AG.

The afternoon consisted of panel discussions and startup pitches

The afternoon consisted of panel discussions and startup pitches in the quantum, cleantech, life sciences, data science and AI spaces.

From Lab-to-Fab: Unlocking the Potential of Quantum Computing in the Real World

Eze Burts, director of the Polsky Center’s quantum accelerator Duality, led a discussion with Peter Hoffman, president of Elevated Advisors; Coleman Collins, director of product management at IonQ; Aaron Kemp, director, advisory technology risk at KPMG; and Victoria Bills, chief investment strategist at Banrion Capital.

Addressing a question about what is needed for de-risking the creation of more suppliers in the ecosystem, Collins said the answer is scale inequality. “We make specific tech choices based on what’s available to us in the supply chain, and even as one of the largest quantum computing manufacturers in the world, we’re only buying maybe a dozen of a given input component in a year” he explained. “Suppliers spend time innovating where the big orders are. We’re buying lasers and other components that weren’t originally designed for our use case, competing for supply and attention with other companies in other industries that buy a lot more than twelve of this same SKU.” He described it as a chicken and egg problem with scale. “There are so many great ideas and places to innovate in the supply chain, but if they aren’t a big enough market opportunity, they don’t get attention,” he added.

Offering her advice for quantum companies looking for funding, Bills said connecting with VCs is like dating. “When you are the founder, you need to recognize that you are also the prize in this,” she said. “You and the VC need to grow together. Access to funding isn’t a one-sided relationship – it’s a cooperative partnership.”

Clean Energy Revolution: Building Sustainable Solutions for a Greener Future

“When we started Resurgence, we focused on looking to find thought leadership and partnerships and collaborations in order to roll the program out in a meaningful way that creates the most impact,” said Ozge Guney Altay, director of Resurgence, the Polsky Center’s cleantech accelerator.

During that time, she crossed paths with the speakers on the cleantech panel, including Karthee Madasamy, founding managing partner of MFV Partners; Johanna Haggstrom, VP of R&D operations at LanzaTech; and Sara Chamberlain, cofounder and managing director of Earth Foundry.

All the speakers stressed the importance of knowing the customer inside and out. “Stay very focused on the customer and know everything you can possibly know about your space,” said Chamberlain.

“We are looking for something that is better than the incumbent today and cheaper,” she added. “It’s not going to be cheaper on day one, but the trajectory has to be measuredly better and cheaper. Which is really hard to find.”

The Role of the University in Building a Life Science Ecosystem

Universities do great science – the question is ‘how do we get that out into the world’,” said Steven Gould, consulting director at the Polsky Center, kicking off the life sciences panel.

Brian Coe, MBA ’99, CEO of Belay Diagnostics and adjunct professor at Chicago Booth, moderated the discussion and began with giving some practical advice: Be able to explain what you do in layman’s terms, in 30 seconds. Be bold and go find people that you would never think will work with you,” he added. And if they won’t – ask them who will that is like them.

As the Associate Vice President for Innovation and New Ventures at Northwestern University, Lisa Dhar explained that the organization’s role is about funding, “but there is so much more to that.” The goal is to provide all the components to make startups “as investable an asset as possible.”

Steve Lehmann, director of venture operations at Portal Innovations noted the benefits of being in a university ecosystem: “Team building is like dating,” he said, “[and] you can go on a lot of dates.”

“It’s a community,” added Nancy Sullivan, CEO and Managing Director of Illinois Ventures, “and if we can take down barriers in this community there is exponential opportunity.”

From a founder’s perspective, Marta New, CEO of Radyus Research, advised to specifically “partner with someone who has been there done that,” stressing the advantages of a diverse team.

Beyond the Valley: The Rise of AI Innovation in the Midwest

Saurabh Sharma, General Partner of Jump Capital, said it’s “futile” to compare to Silicon Valley. “It’s an ecosystem of its own and that’s great for the country. But Chicago and the Midwest have its own ecosystem,” he said. “There are phenomenal companies here, and the question is how do we scale them.” This requires retaining talent and increasing funding.

“When you look at coastal versus non-coastal investments, cash-for-cash returns are very similar,” added Landon Campbell, general manager of Drive Capital. “Here you have the DNA of a founder who is heads-down, does more with less, hardworking, and doesn’t over-hire. At the end of the day, this is the region where more investors should be investing time.”

Kristian Hammond, cofounder of Narrative Sciences offered this advice: “Stop thinking about your technology. It’s not the tech that matters, it’s what your tech does for people.”

“You build the thing and you’re excited for it, but you’re supposed to solve a problem, not just create a tech,” he added. “You should care about your user. Your whole job is to think in terms of the impact you’re going to have to people in the world and what they can do with your tech. If you can’t do that, why are you starting a company?”

The panel was moderated by Shyama Majumdar, who leads Transform, the Polsky Center’s data science and AI accelerator.

Satyajeet Salgar, MBA ’07, and David Uminsky discussed building product in the age of AI during the closing keynote

Satyajeet Salgar, MBA ’07, and David Uminsky discussed building product in the age of AI during the closing keynote.

Artificial Intelligence: 3.5 Innovations

“The energy here… it’s remarkable,” said Satyajeet Salgar, MBA ’07, Google AI’s Director of Product Management and UX, sitting down for his discussion with David Uminsky, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Data Science Institute.

Salgar, who currently leads a cross-disciplinary applied AI team developing cutting-edge machine learning capabilities at Google, began by noting the evolution of AI’s role in products.

“For the last ten years or so I feel like we’ve seen AI become an increasingly important part of the products we build – but it’s been in the background,” said Salgar. While this role gradually became more important, the improvements today “aren’t linear anymore – it’s exponential.”

Speaking to AI innovation in general, Salgar touched on the “3.5 things” he is seeing before taking questions from the audience, the first “bucket” being the current state of AI models. These models, he said, are incredibly powerful and being used in many applications.

Large language models (LLMs), machine learning models that can comprehend and generate text, specifically excel. “However, I think what has happened is everyone is trying to take an LLM and sprinkle it on top of a product that already exists,” he said, noting that there is opportunity to build AI-native applications, “truly AI products.”

Salgar spoke next to the improvement rates of AI models – and the trajectory of what is possible, citing the AI Index Report. “You can see where [these models] are going in the next two to three years,” said Salgar. “Try to build for that world.”

The “third bucket” addressed a specific application of AI. “It’s very clear if you look at things like alpha fold and application of AI in biology and computer science… Once we get good at using AI as additive or accelerant for research, it’s going to be huge,” he said.

The final (half) piece: “During the gold rush the picks and shovels makers did really well,” noted Salgar, explaining that the same will be true for those that can improve development tools for LLMs.

The Deep Tech Ventures Summit was sponsored by Amazon Web Services (AWS), Caruso Ventures, Cooley, J.P. Morgan, McAndrews, TechNexus Venture Collaborative, and True Blue Partners.

// Polsky Deep Tech Ventures is a full-spectrum accelerator and venture support initiative dedicated to translating deep tech innovations into startups that bring life-saving, world-changing products and services to market. Launched in 2023 to provide sector-specific expertise, entrepreneurial training, and funding.

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