It doesn’t take a Potemkin Village

There are two villages in Chicago. One is the Potemkin Village. The other is our village.

You are welcome in our village, but understand that in our village, we live by a set of norms:

  1. Deal flow moves fast;
  2. We don’t celebrate ourselves;
  3. We don’t do groupthink;
  4. We don’t care who you know, and we don’t seek approval from irrelevant third parties;
  5. When money comes in, value — not hype — goes out.

When our villagers gather around the campfire, we tell stories of patents and SBIR grants. The strength of our village is not in the size or number of our dwellings; rather strength is found in our inventions that we bring into town. The wise men and wise women in our village are more likely to be found wearing safety goggles than graphic t-shirts and blue jeans.

It takes a village. It takes a real village, not a Potemkin Village. We’ve proven we can build attractive real estate in Chicago — no problems there. What we haven’t done is prove the ability to turn inventions into products. This has left a void in our innovation economy that we’ve filled with incubators, accelerators, and coworking spaces.

Gather around TNEBULA

A couple of weeks ago my business partner Alex Duchak and I launched Invent2026, a new initiative to build a Midwest innovation corridor based on applied research, technology transfer, entrepreneurship, and a lab-to-product chain that sources innovation from our laboratories and builds new products.

The engine of Invent2026 — the village square— is TNEBULA, a new marketplace for lab-generated inventions.

TNEBULA’s domain of industry experts will collaborate to uncover technologies posted by our clients labs with the most commercial promise in the market. Our user base will also provide actionable intelligence on commercial pathways, and provide an ability to tag other users who may be interested in a certain invention. (“Here, friend at John Deere, take a look at this precision agriculture technology…”)

Next week we will begin “beta” testing TNEBULA among a group of friends, colleagues, and partners. Please sign up here if you would like to join our group of initial users. We plan on launching TNEBULA next month.

Chicago entrepreneurs can leverage TNEBULA to build companies like Influit Energy, a new battery company that was started by two Argonne National Laboratory researchers and is now being built out of an Illinois Institute of Technology lab.

Influit’s new battery design could dramatically increase the energy storage capacity of “flow” batteries, which are typically used to power distributed, neighborhood energy grids. By increasing the energy density of their flow batteries, Influit shrinks the flow battery to a size small enough to fit into electric vehicles, and allows the battery to be recharged as quickly as it takes to fill up a tank of gas. They have already received a grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s SBIR program to build out a prototype battery.

This is Invent2026’s lab-to-product chain in action, and we invite you to participate.

Turning Chicago’s attention toward the laboratory

We are getting lots of interest in participating on TNEBULA…in Washington. Last week Alex and I traveled to DC for the Navy Forum for SBIR/STTR Transition (Navy FST). There SBIR companies from throughout the country converged, sharing how they had advanced their patents into products. The presentations were recondite, lacking any graphical appeal, but they weren’t pushing software apps. These companies were in new industries: new batteries, deep learning technologies, automated vehicles, and so forth. They were backed by scientists, engineers, and inventors.

In short, these companies pushed the limits of technology. There was a reason that a bunch of military flag officers roamed the halls of the Navy FST conference. They weren’t there for a photo op; they were looking for companies that will keep America’s technological advantage — an advantage they fear is being lost.

Alex and I felt like we were among friends. We felt like we were in our village.

Chicago needs to be providing solutions to keep America’s technological advantage. We’re not doing that right now. We’re huddling in coworking spaces and telling ourselves about this great “scene” that we’ve created (but really haven’t).

We need to end this culture that prioritizes self-promotion, builds fiefdoms, and where in the end, nothing gets done. We need to build the kind of cross-cutting collaborations that new industries require. That’s what we’re doing with Invent2026.

The companies that we will build in our village, we are in for the multi-year development cycle that new industries will require. We are assembling investors who understand the process of building new industries, and are interested in matching SBIR grants for companies building new products from the laboratory.

If grantmakers — public and private — want to help, they should join us in providing matching grants to companies who have received SBIR and STTR grants. They should also help train workers and provide facilities to prototype new designs that these companies are taking from the labs.

We don’t need to make Chicago’s Potemkin Village into a Potemkin City.

This all needs to be said, and I say it because I love Chicago and I don’t want us to repeat the mistakes of the past. We cannot afford another Divine InterVentures fiasco, but if we don’t start refocusing on a sensible strategy to grow new industries here in Chicago, the bubble will burst once again.

So come join our village. We’re working to get the inventions. We’re working to get the capital. We’re building a lab-to-product chain, and you should be a part of it.

Thomas Day is the co-founder of Invent2026. This opinion piece included a great deal of insight from the other Invent2026 partner and co-founder, Alex Duchak.

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