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“There’s no better time to dream big.” That’s how Beckett Jackson, ’16, investing director of Chicago-based Boeing HorizonX, the venture-capital arm of the aviation company, views the opportunities in deep tech, advanced technologies that require fundamental scientific breakthroughs—with potentially huge payoffs.

Jackson expressed this optimistic perspective while speaking at DeepTechU, a virtual conference organized by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago. The conference brought together representatives from more than 20 universities and laboratories across the region who are “uniquely positioned to lead” in the area, said Juan de Pablo, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering and vice president for national laboratories, science strategy, innovation, and global initiatives at UChicago.

“The Midwest is home to some of the world’s premier efforts in materials science and engineering, sustainability, energy storage, or quantum information sciences, to name a few areas that are central to deep-tech development.”

During the three-day conference, experts from VC firms, startup companies, and academia spoke to a global audience about what it will take to succeed in fields as diverse as cleantech, artificial intelligence, tissue engineering, and quantum computing. They provided an array of tools and knowledge to help bring new breakthroughs out from behind academic walls—and help make big dreams a reality.

Resources for Successful Commercialization

On the conference’s first day, a panel of technology transfer experts spoke to the commercialization process, and they discussed how to set up university founders for success. Jay Schrankler, associate vice president and head of the Polsky Center, stressed the value of having a founding team member from outside academia. “I think that coupling with industry expertise is really critical,” he said.

In another panel, leaders in the Midwest ecosystem shared opportunities for venture-development support. “It is difficult to commercialize deep tech,” admitted Ian Adams, ’17, managing director of Clean Energy Trust, a Chicago-based cleantech venture firm, “but very doable, and there are a lot of resources to support those efforts.”

The conference focused in part on connecting innovators to those resources, including incubators and accelerators throughout the region, such as Duality, the nation’s first quantum accelerator, jointly launched by UChicago and the Chicago Quantum Exchange. “Four out of ten dollars spent on quantum will be spent right here,” noted Samir Mayekar, Chicago’s deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development.

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“If your technology can solve every problem, it’s probably a sign it can’t solve any problem.”

— Shane Farritor, Chief Technology Officer, Virtual Incision

The Importance of Focus

Throughout day two of the conference, speakers emphasized both the importance of venture firms familiarizing themselves with the latest university tech as well as the need for researchers to evaluate the potential impact of their innovations. “If your technology can solve every problem, it’s probably a sign it can’t solve any problem,” said Shane Farritor, chief technology officer of Virtual Incision, a platform for minimally invasive surgery. Investors stressed the value of finding that sweet spot between a technology broad enough for multiple applications and one that fulfills a specific need.

“Don’t be bashful if you feel you have a platform technology,” said Scott Button, ’95, managing director of Venture Investors. At the same time, he said, “understand the importance of focus.”

In the second-day keynote, Chris Meldrum, an entrepreneur-in-residence at venture firm DCVC Bio, said his company looks at four things when deciding on whether to invest: the technology, the team, the market, and the intellectual property. Not all of those elements are created equal, he added. “The team is the driver,” said Meldrum. “You can have a great car, but if you don’t have a great driver, you won’t get far.”

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“The team is the driver. You can have a great car, but if you don’t have a great driver, you won’t get far.”

— Chris Meldrum, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, DCVC Bio

A Complex Dance of Science and Business

In the conference’s final day, keynote speaker Jeffrey Hubbell, the Eugene Bell Professor of Tissue Engineering and deputy dean for development at UChicago’s Pritzer School of Molecular Engineering, doubled down on the theme of collaboration. “The value of a launch depends on the idea,” he said, but “the idea has to be supported by a team.” Managing the transition from bench to commercialization requires a complex dance of skilled people combining both scientific expertise and business acumen, he added.

In DeepTechU’s final session, de Pablo sat down for a fireside chat with Vanessa Chan, chief commercialization officer and director of the Office of Technology Transitions at the US Department of Energy. Together, they talked about how to work collaboratively between government and the private sector, as well as the need to reform academic institutions to focus more on commercializing discoveries in a way that can benefit people outside the ivory tower.

Chan recommended reforming the PhD and tenure system to focus on real-world impact. “The way we did things before worked for the old world,” Chan said. “But it’s not going to work for the new world.”

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