Techweek Chicago Brings Big Crowd, Bigger Plans

by TODD STOLARSKI, with ROB McMANAMY | July 1, 2015

The Windy City is still shaking. Techweek Chicago blew through town June 20-28 and transformed the eighth floor of the majestic Merchandise Mart into a futuristic forum for thousands seeking a preview of what will emerge next.

Well over 100 speakers commanded multiple stages, dispensing insights on the current state of tech and the exciting directions it all seems to be heading. Established companies and nascent startups exhibited side by side, representing themselves well and also eclipsing the century mark. Despite the event’s national scope, the predominant view remained on the vibrant local technology scene. Walking throughout the noisy, winding expo floor, it was evident that no one had made small plans.

One with especially big plans was City of Chicago CIO Brenna Berman, who runs the city’s Dept. of Innovation and Technology. “Technology fuels the dreams and desires of everyone living in the city,” said Berman, speaking at Thursday’s State of Innovation in Tech session. In fact, Chicago is one of the first major cities to formulate an official tech strategy, she noted, embodied in the detailed Chicago Tech Plan that was released in the fall of 2013 by then-Chicago CTO John Tolva.

The coveted cup.

The coveted cup.

Dreams and desires were certainly on display throughout the show, with dozens of hungry startups vying to take home the coveted winner’s trophy, plus $50,000 in prizes offered by the Launch Competition. No doubt the competitors’ overnight dreams last week were not filled with sheep jumping over fences, but more likely hordes of zeroes and ones jamming together to build binary aspirations. Once the dust had settled, Apollo Medical Devices, a provider of “low-cost, rapid diagnostics” for blood analysis had taken top honors. Next step? It’s on to Techweek Miami in December to compete for the grand prize of $250K.

“Technology fuels the dreams and desires of everyone living in the city.”

— Brenna Berman, CIO, City of Chicago

Mr. 1871, himself, Howard Tullman on stage, far left.

Mr. 1871, himself, Howard Tullman on stage, far left.

As a partner of Techweek Chicago, BuiltWorlds participated in two events, one offsite and one at the Mart. On June 23rd at our West Loop HQ, we hosted Robots to the Rescue: The Evolution of Unmanned Vehicles, which featured a packed house, drones in flight, and sterling presentations on the future of unmanned vehicles, aerial and otherwise.

On Thursday, BW proudly brought its Tech Toy Chest industry panel to the K&L Gates stage in the heart of the bustling expo floor. Moderated by Hard Hat Hub‘s Creative Marketing Lead Christina Klinepeter, Tech Toy Chest brought together several technologies that are advancing how we interact with the world around us, especially in the design and construction industry, and throughout the built environment.

Panel emcee: Hub's Klinepeter said the industry job search engine, itself, is now seeking a UX Designer.

Panel emcee: Hub’s Klinepeter said the industry job search engine, itself, is now seeking a UX Designer.

“From virtual and augmented realities, to 3D printing and high resolution renderings — even the impact of video games on architecture and engineering — we had a lot to discuss,” said Klinepeter afterward. Noting the two-hour time slot went by quickly, she added, “I was delighted to engage in dialogue with such thought leaders; their insights about our built environment were even inspiring.”

Sharing tech toys: From left, Klinepeter, HardHatHub; Hepburn, DAQRI; Carr, MasterGraphics; Onigbanjo, Zebra Technologies; Wilson, PostivEnergy Practice; Matos, Blue Marble 3D; and Scranton, IrisVR.

Sharing tech toys: From left, Klinepeter, HardHatHub; Hepburn, DAQRI; Carr, MasterGraphics; Onigbanjo, Zebra Technologies; Wilson, PostivEnergy Practice; Matos, Blue Marble 3D; and Scranton, IrisVR.

Some potent quotables:

  • Zebra Technologies‘ Adebayo Onigbanjo: “Technology is only an enabler — you have to be able to control it… If we just continue to do what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years, then we are not going to be here in 10 years”;
  • Daqri‘s Ken Hepburn: “There’s a major disparity between the guys on the ground and the architects. It’s time to close that gap… Technology like our SmartHelmet can actually help safety and prevent fatal accidents in our industry”;
  • MasterGraphicsKevin Carr: “All the disciplines need to start coming together to drive efficiency in the industry.”
  • PositivEnergy‘s Chris Wilson: “For the last five years, we’ve been in that early adopter mode. We’re now at that stage where we’re finally crossing the chasm to where people finally know and understand the technologies available to them in the built environment”;
  • Blue Marble 3D‘s George Matos: “We’re not slowing down (with the creation of new tech); we are speeding up… Education is the biggest key function. Helping clients decide which technologies will work best for their needs”;
  • IrisVR‘s Shane Scranton: “Just collaborate. I’ve learned to just share our ideas now. Nobody has the time to actually steal them… We need people who understand design, construction, and 3D data workflows. We have a diverse team, so it’s a very unique challenge”.

After our panel, Zebra Technologies the next day also moderated its own event on the ever-growing topic of the Internet of Things (IoT). Zebra Senior VP Phil Gerskovich facilitated a lively discussion with Rich Bira of Fibaro (home automation systems) and Peggy Smedley of ConstrucTech magazine and host of our own weekly radio show, The Voice of IoT in Our Connected World. The trio’s wide-ranging dialogue covered such topics as how IoT boosts the use of public transit and what we can expect from a connected toothbrush. With 25 million connected consumer devices expected by 2020, Smedley said the choice is now clear. “Get in the game or live in the box,” she said.

Smiles by Textura: Out in force, recruiting tech stars!

Smiles by Textura: Out in force, recruiting tech stars!

Throughout the expo, other BW friends were also represented. Employees from Textura construction collaboration solutions were actively recruiting tech talent, perhaps to help fill their spacious new digs inside Chicago’s downtown Prudential Plaza. Across the hall, crowdfunding real estate platform PeerRealty showcased its services while SWC Technology Partners reminded us all why Crain’s Chicago Business has named it one of the best places to work, year after year. Among event sponsors, Leopardo Construction also stood out.

This particular Techweek was so action-packed that seven days couldn’t accommodate all of the festivities. Beginning with its own Techweek hackathon at WeWork in River North, and concluding with a celebratory networking mixer, this week of all things tech had something for every age. Whether you took an electric Harley Davidson for a test drive outside, or took in the inventions and youthful enthusiasm inside at the Kids’ Coding Corner, you no doubt came away energized and most definitely entertained.

Even as Techweek organizers now plan for their next conference in Kansas City, MO, in September, they announced enthusiastically that the roadshow will soon also be expanding to Havana, Cuba, a destination unattainable even six months ago. But as John Schepke, CEO of SIM Partners, reminded the crowd gathered for his Friday talk, limitations of any sort should always be regarded as temporary. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” he said.

For more, visit our Twitter feed and see our pictures in The Chicago Tribune’s own Techweek recap.