Midwest universities unite for deep tech conference

Innovative startups at institutions converge for unique virtual event, trying to secure venture capital money.
By: | April 20, 2021
Alina Grubnyak/Unsplash

Could the center of the tech universe eventually shift from Silicon Valley?

It’s unlikely, but given the combination of people leaving northern California because of the high cost of living and a increasingly remote workforce, there are emerging cities that are building their cases as potential next hubs.

According to a study done by KPMG, some of those becoming well positioned in the U.S. include New York, Austin, Boston, Dallas and Huntsville, Ala. Another is Chicago, which is playing host today through Thursday to a virtual conference featuring university startups from the Midwest.

Called DeepTechU and launched by the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, it will feature more than 100 venture capital firms and a coalition of higher education and national researchers networking and kicking around the latest innovations and what it takes to really get them off the ground.

“The Polsky Center launched DeepTechU to help shine a brighter light on all the emerging deep technologies coming out of the greater Midwest,” said Jay Schrankler, Associate Vice President and Head of the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “There is incredible work being done here, and we are excited to partner with top research institutions and Big 10 schools in supporting breakthrough innovations that will change the way we live in the future.”

One of those is called Duality, an accelerator program from the Polsky Center that helps startups gain traction in quantum technology. There is no shortage of innovative ideas sprouting up on campuses … and at a critical time.

“We believe deep tech will play an essential role in addressing many of the challenges facing society today, by responding quickly to develop new therapies, agricultural solutions, and transformational uses for synthetic biology,” said Chris Meldrum, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at DCVC Bio, who will keynote Day 2 of the conference.

There are 48 investor-ready startup companies on hand – from those focused on artificial intelligence to others in clean energy to those focused on medicine, including: The Keenan Center for Entrepreneurship at The Ohio State University, NuTech Ventures at the University of Nebraska Lincoln and the rest of the Big Ten universities.

“The Midwest is uniquely positioned to lead in deep tech, meaning the types of early-stage technologies that require fundamental breakthroughs to advance science and move innovations into use in the world,” said Juan de Pablo, University of Chicago Vice President for National Laboratories, Science Strategy, Innovation, and Global Initiatives. “The Midwest is home to some of the world’s premier efforts in materials science and engineering, sustainability, energy storage, or quantuminformation sciences, to name a few areas that are central to deep tech development.”

The three-day conference agenda include speakers from the universities as well as representatives from Amazon, Boeing, GE, Microsoft, United Laboratories. The National Science Foundation’s Andrea Belz, Division Director of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships, is the keynote speaker on the opening day and will discuss the deep-tech ecosystem.

There also will be several panels, including topics such as sourcing deals through research and finding funding opportunities. The final day will include a keynote from Jeffrey Hubbell, Professor of Tissue Engineering and Deputy Dean for Development at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (The University of Chicago) on “Navigating Startup Success from Lab to Launch.”

Several other conference partners will be on hand, including Centrepolis Accelerator at Lawrence Technological University, Chain Reaction Innovations at Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Innovation Crossroads at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.