Illinois Is the Nation’s Second-Largest Manufacturing Center. mHUB Aims to Make It No. 1.

by Nona Tepper
October 23, 2020
Photo: mHUB

When the COVID-19 pandemic initially hit, the cost to manufacture a ventilator could reach up to $30,000. Today, mHUB CEO Haven Allen said it’s down to $300.

The Chicago-based manufacturing innovation center helped connect the state’s maker community to local hospitals, with the group voluntarily engineering ventilators’ cost down nearly 100 percent. Then, the team manufactured 20,000 face shields, which it donated to local healthcare professionals. It also worked to develop efficient new air-purifying respirators.

mHUB’s COVID-19 pandemic response represents just one example of how the maker haven has helped wannabe entrepreneurs develop products that answer community problems, while working on their own business. Now, with a pocket full of fresh public and private investment, mHUB aims to turn Illinois into the nationwide center for supporting smart device development.

“The sky’s the limit for us,” Allen told Built In. “We’re removing the financial barrier for entrepreneurs, creating those opportunities for more people to take that leap and stay in the game too.”


How It Started

mHUB launched in 2017 with the aim of building on Illinois’ title as the second-largest manufacturing ecosystem in the country. The state’s manufacturing industry generates $101 billion annually in gross regional product, second only to LA in size, and Allen said more mechanical, electrical and computer engineers are located in the Midwest than anywhere else in the country.

The organization operates out of a 63,000-square-foot manufacturing innovation center in the River West neighborhood, providing its network of more than 270 active startups access to 3D printers, CT scanners and other highly technical machines. In addition to offering aspiring entrepreneurs space to develop their business, mHUB’s industry leader and investor braintrust provides mentorship and offers members a startup curriculum of 50 courses, which range from how to build a supply chain to how to protect your intellectual property.

This curriculum expands upon what many of the entrepreneurs — as well as solo engineers — learned in local colleges like Northwestern University, the University of Illinois–Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology. It also provides a bridge for college startups like NuCurrent, a startup out of Northwestern that has developed a cost-efficient conductive energy antenna, to take an idea from the classroom to a commercial application. With mHUB’s support, Allen said NuCurrent has integrated its tech into cell phones, watches, furniture and “they’re growing very fast.”

NuCurrent represents just one recent success story for mHUB. Since the organization’s launch, mHUB’s members have received a combined $320 million in venture investment, Allen said. They have created 1,300 local jobs, hold about 224 patents and generated $110 million in sales, according to the center. Their success has reverberated outside Chicago and across the Midwest.

In late September, the Cubii portable fitness device was acquired for $100 million; Greenlight Planet, a provider of solar home energy products, secured $90 million in funding; and Allen said Guardhat recently relocated its industrial sensor manufacturing facility from Detroit to nearby Schaumburg.

“Illinois, Chicago, the Midwest has a real opportunity to dominate this industrial 4.0 space, the hardtech space,” Allen said. “We have all the right components — the customers, the talent, the intellectual property, and the ecosystem to support it.”


The Future of Illinois as Industrial 4.0

A series of recent investments now aim to expand mHUB’s presence beyond the Midwest.

In August, mHUB announced it raised more than $5 million to launch a new fund dedicated to investing in hardtech startups building IoT, medical devices, smart cities and other tech. Billionaire real estate magnate and private equity investor Sam Zell contributed to the Product Impact fund, which mHUB eventually aims to grow to $15 million.

“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of opportunity at that very early stage go unfunded because people don't have access to friends and family rounds,” Allen said. “There isn’t a necessarily strong hardtech venture community here in Chicago. We are really trying to study and learn what mHUB’s role could be in springing hardtech investment ecosystem here in the Midwest.”

The fund will also help expand mHUB’s accelerator program, which connects young companies developing similar technologies to a single industry partner, bringing together a healthcare giant like Baxter International with a medtech startup, for example. The maker-market collaboration builds upon another recent mHUB accolade.

In September, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded mHUB a $1.3 million award to build out its product development services program, which connects the approximately 1,000 engineers in its network with Fortune 500 corporations to help bring new products to market. Just a few years after the program's launch, Allen said the initiative has already contributed more than $2 million to Illinois’ maker community in contract work, helping would-be entrepreneurs secure a steady stream of income while developing their business.

And this month, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded mHUB a $50,000 grant that recognized its leadership in building energy-related tech and entrepreneurship. To continue to grow, the 23-person organization is currently hiring for five roles, and is looking for individuals to connect and drive relationships with specific industry verticals.

“We’re really starting to get outside the Midwest,” Allen said. “Especially with the accelerator in the venture fund, it’s just an exciting time to continue to help scale the brand, support startups of all types and develop physical product companies.”

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