The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 threatened the future of the entire city. However, out of the ashes came spark after spark of innovation, as engineers, architects and entrepreneurs worked together to rebuild what had burned down.
Now, the disaster has become the namesake for one of the largest tech incubators in the U.S., one that houses hundreds of early-stage and high-growth startups focused on various aspects of the digital world. Since its founding in 2012, 1871 has become a powerhouse for innovation, tripling in size and garnering international attention that included the mayors of London and Paris visiting to see what they might be able to bring back home. While it started with 50 companies, 1871 now has around 500. Meanwhile, total square footage has tripled, from 50,000 square feet to around 150,000. The incubator also cross-pollinates internationally, swapping startups from more than a dozen different countries and cities, including places like Tel Aviv, Mexico City, Finland and Turkey, all coming to Chicago for a period of time.
Along with providing financial resources and one-on-one mentorship, 1871 has brought in a variety of high-profile guests for special events, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, former U.S. CTO Megan Smith and AOL co-founder Steve Case. It’s also connected with seven of Chicago’s universities, along with bigger businesses, that provide opportunities for collaboration.
“This isn’t like, ‘Come in, rent a desk and we wish you the best,'” said 1871 CEO Howard Tullman. “This is a complete sort of solution for how you make it highly likely that the companies that get in here and work with us are likely to be more successful.”
The companies aren’t all just pie-in-the-sky ideas. They’re already offering real returns and creating real jobs. According to Tullman, the companies at 1871 have created more than 8,000 jobs and raised $250 million in funds.
A startup hub
In May, 1871 announced a partnership with Bosch, the German dishwasher manufacturer, to launch a new incubator focused specifically on the Internet of Things. The Connectory, as it’s called, will let startups within the 19,000-square-foot space innovate on ways to work with the world of wearables and other connected devices. Two 1871 startups have already moved in. One of them, Glance Displays, is creating “smart mirrors” to turn any mirror into a digital surface that can display numbers, text and images. The other, Xaptum, creates infrastructure for communication between various connected devices.
Increasingly, 1871 is also becoming a place for startups focused on virtual and augmented reality. Take Midwest Immersive, a Chicago-based agency focused on experiential design. For the city’s Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, Midwest Immersive let visitors write VR holiday greeting cards that were then pushed to social channels. This year, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, another company, EX3 Labs, hosted a mixed-reality experience that let users interact with a hologram of the Civil Rights leader as he recited parts of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
It’s not just startups that are choosing to experiment at 1871. In fact, Apple has chosen the space for the only Genius Bar anywhere in the world that’s not operated within an Apple Store. With 2,000 people passing through on a daily basis and 20,000 in any given month, Tullman said, Apple sees it as a prototype for future Genius Bar extensions worldwide. Right now, 1871 is working with Apple on a plan to develop a way to go to market inside 800 to 900 incubators around the world.
Innovating in the VR space
While 1871, a nonprofit, is focused on helping companies thrive, other companies and organizations in Chicago are working on innovation from within. Isobar, the international advertising agency, chose the city as the hub for its research and development facility, NowLab.
“This is my corny saying, but if Isobar is an all-digital network that focuses on innovation, then we are the routers in the NowLab,” said Dave Meeker, vp of innovation at Isobar. “We are the ones that are working all the time, behind the scenes, that pass information around to get collaborations happening.”
Isobar, which now has three R&D locations in the U.S., has been working on VR projects related to behavioral analytics and location-based ad targeting, according to Meeker. It’s also working with the music industry and recently started a collaboration with Facebook’s secretive research unit, Building 8. (Meeker declined to provide details about how the company is working with the social network. However, at Facebook’s F8 conference in April, the company revealed two of the projects in the works: a brain-to-computer interface to let humans type with their minds and a way to hear through their skin by wearing a sleeve-like technology that understands words based on vibrations in their arms.)