P33 Wants to Make Chicago a World-Class Tech Hub. Here’s How.

Tatum Hunter
November 5, 2019
P33 Chicago tech plan
photo via p33

After a year of research, deliberation and team-building, the minds behind Chicago’s Plan for 2033 (P33) — a project positioning Chicago as a leading tech city — unveiled their plan of action at an event last night.

Despite being the third-largest city in the United States, Chicago has seen its startups receive a disproportionately low share of venture capital. And while the city is home to multiple world-class universities, the talent and research those institutions produce often end up elsewhere — namely, coastal tech hubs. 

“Tech” used to refer to a certain type of company. Today, all companies are reliant on tech, and Chicago must stake its claim if it wants to compete with other cities and build a strong, equitable ecosystem.

P33 is the Chicago business community’s answer to that charge. It’s led by Penny Pritzker, founder and chair of investment firm PSP Partners and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce; Chris Gladwin, founder of Cleversafe and Ocient; and Kelly Welsh, president of the Civic Committee and Commercial Club of Chicago. Along with a team of eight staff members and hundreds of local stakeholders, they have spent the last year taking a hard look at Chicago’s reputation and infrastructure, using the data they gather to find a path forward.

That path was revealed, in part, at last night’s event for a collection of the city’s business, academic and civic leaders. 

“The general spirit for the event is building off the research phase [of P33] to say, ‘Where are the areas that we really need to make progress?’” P33 CEO Brad Henderson told Built In. “But now, we’re backed by a team and a set of ideas where we really do need help from the tech community in Chicago and others to bring these things to light.”

The strategy P33 unveiled focused on identifying Chicago’s existing strengths and leveraging them to drive growth and equity. It zeroed in on five areas where Chicago is well-positioned to lead. From there, P33 devised a five-pronged plan:

 

1. Turn research surrounding deep tech into startups with monetizable solutions.

Illinois universities are participating in the push to develop quantum computing technology, or a type of computing that can process more data and achieve results much faster than classical computers. However, with powerhouses like Google and IBM investing heavily in the field and a slew of coastal entrepreneurs ready to snap up and monetize any advancements, Chicago must build a more robust pipeline among researchers, venture capitalists and industry players to ensure any quantum breakthroughs turn into local startups and local jobs.

2. Address gaps in Chicago’s startup ecosystem.

Chicago has made improvements when it comes to seed funding for founders, but some problems persist. Funding drops away when these ventures hit the growth stage, so there are few impressive Series B or Series C rounds. Few startups are in high-yield fields like hard tech and deep tech. Lastly, founders are usually white, and their companies often don’t add value for the Chicago neighborhoods that need it most.

To address the lack of growth-stage funding, P33 leaders want to systematically connect growth-stage startups with Chicago’s large companies. This, Henderson said, would be a win-win. New, promising companies get new customers and more chances to prove their value, and established companies get solutions to their tech challenges. 

“You don’t get big exits, you don’t get the companies that really change our lives if you can’t accelerate your growth and prove what you can do and start to acquire more customers,” he said. “We want to actually create a real community with real muscle for big companies and growth-stage companies to solve really tough problems together.”

P33 will also launch an inclusion initiative called Industry 77, aimed at equitably distributing access to tech products and services and helping new ventures scale faster. 

3. Fix the disconnects in data science.

Chicago has to double down on its employment brand to retain data science developments and talent, according to Henderson. By leaning into its Midwestern, no-nonsense reputation, the city could attract top data workers who want to make a difference, he said. 

“I think Chicago is the place where tech gets real, where analytics and data science get real. There’s a lot of hype in the world around phrases like AI and disruption. What I love about Chicago is, let’s get rid of the hype. We have real problems to solve. Fraud affects people’s lives. Food issues affect the quality of our food and the availability of food in our environments. Drugs affect our health. How do we become the city that takes the incredible technical talent from our schools and really inspires people not just to improve a social media site, which is important, but actually solve problems that affect our health and happiness?”

4. Chicago loses top tech talent to other cities, and its tech workforce isn’t diverse.

P33 proposed a solution that included launching a tech talent sourcing platform, adding internships and apprenticeships in tech fields and helping companies better support people of color in the workplace.

5. Chicago is not known as a tech hub, and that affects its economic outcomes.

Some speculate that it’s Chicago’s Midwestern humility that makes it miss the mark when it comes to city branding. P33 chief marketing officer Erin Amico doesn’t buy it. Chicagoans aren’t scared to plug their city — they just haven’t tried. 

“One of the things that I’m really excited about doing is how do we tout some of these incredible assets and the strengths of our ecosystem,” she said. “We have the highest percentage of female-owned startups anywhere in the world. That’s huge. That’s a huge win that we don’t do such a great job of celebrating and putting out there. That’s one huge growth area for what we can do to be a major tech hub, like Austin, et cetera.”

 

Where do Chicago techies come in?

So, what can average tech professionals do to support P33’s efforts? According to Henderson, they have to get out of their comfort zones, start conversations with people in other realms of the industry and find opportunities for cross-functional projects. By overhauling the way Chicago’s stakeholders communicate, the city can form habits that will eventually lead to progress, he said.

“We need a change in how we all act with one another that goes beyond corporate and growth stage and instead starts to look a lot more like true multi-stakeholder problem solving around tech,” he said. “I just think it’s about curiosity beyond our typical sphere into other parts of Chicago that could actually help us solve the problem, either career problems or a specific problem at work for the day, in a different way. So a lot of the programming we’re going to be developing is really meant to make those connections, to cross the traditionally siloed parts of Chicago.”

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