By Xieyang Jessica Qiao
Today may the slowest day you’re ever going to have during the rest of your life. The pace of change tomorrow will be faster than the pace today.
Chicago’s burgeoning VC opportunities and tech scene
An entrepreneurial spirit, fueled by investors who bet big on the city, is driving Chicago’s tech startup scene. According to the 2018 Chicago VC Ecosystem report, the city continues to outperform other U.S. venture ecosystems – including Silicon Valley – in terms of median multiple on invested capital (MOIC).
“You look at all the dollars that have been invested in these startups and compare that to how many dollars have been returned to liquidity,” said Elizabeth “Betsy” Ziegler, chief executive officer of 1871, a Chicago-based tech incubator. “Chicago has the highest median MOIC.”
Another metric to weigh Chicago’s VC prowess is exit valuation, which estimates the proceeds when an asset or business is sold. In addition to being at the top of the MOIC heap, Chicago is the nation’s leading cities for exits, producing a tenfold return on investment (ROI).
“If you look at the exit values of all these companies that had gone public in cities outside of Silicon Valley, Los Angeles created the most value in the last five years at $30 billion,” Ziegler said during the ABA TECHSHOW 2019. “Chicago created $15 billion – [followed by] New York, Boston and Austin. But $20 billion created in Los Angeles was from the Snap IPO.”
Ziegler said Chicago continues to invigorate support for entrepreneurs. When 1871 was founded in 2012, it was the only startup hub of this kind to serve and graduate entrepreneurs. Now, over 100 organizations in Chicago define themselves as incubators and accelerators.
“It’s exciting that we live in exponential times now,” Ziegler said. “But we need to remember that what got you here is not going to get you there. The rate of change is accelerating. In five years, the power of your iPhone will be the same as that of an IBM Watson.”
New business models in an epoch of transformative growth
The largest music company in the world, Spotify, does not produce any of its music. The largest hospitality company in the world, Airbnb, does not own any of its own rooms. Winning business models are evolving beyond services and products.
“These companies don’t own any of their assets, don’t follow any of the rules from the past than any of their nearest predators,” Ziegler said. “This is happening over and over again and at an ever faster pace.”
Since 2000, more than 50 percent of companies in the Fortune 500 have disappeared from the list due to bankruptcy or acquisition. The outburst of new technology disrupts the operating model of an enterprise.
“Every company is a tech company and every company is a data company,” Ziegler said. “What that means is every company has to start to operate like a software company. The rule of thumb is that if the rate of innovation inside your organization is slower than the rate of innovation outside your organization, you are on a downward slope.”
Top technologies and trends to pay attention to
1. The Internet of Things
Last year, a 4,000-mile-long undersea cable that can transmit 160 terabytes of data per second began operation, connecting Spain to Virginia Beach. This Marea cable has enough bandwidth to stream 71 million HD videos simultaneously- 16 times faster than household internet.
Loon, a project undertaken by an Alphabet subsidiary, is a network of stratospheric balloons that sits in the atmosphere. Currently operated in Puerto Rico and Kenya, Loon can be arranged to form one large communications network and bring internet to people who have never used it before.
There is a bit of a race on the satellite front. In February, OneWeb launched the first six of its 648 planned satellites, while SpaceX continues to deliver a constellation of satellites into orbit for broadband services.
“There will be new wealth creation, shift to the middle-class, new consumption group, need for access to education and different infrastructures,” Ziegler said. “When we are able to touch every single person on the planet by the internet, it’s going to be a massive shift that is coming in the next five years.”
The IoT has also fueled the sensor revolution – massive volumes of data from sensor sources are connected intelligently to deliver scaleable results. In Sweden, over 4,000 people have already implanted microchips under their skin.
“People can use microchips to unlock their doors, share contact information or pay for things,” Ziegler said. “In the next three to four years, a trillion connected sensors will populate our world, embedded in everything we make.”
2. A gravitational shift in the future of mobility
Uber is buying up to 24,000 Volvo autonomous SUVs to create the momentum for self-driving cars. Waymo is the first company to get the permit to test autonomous cars without safety drivers. General Motors slashed more than 14,000 jobs, yet doubled down on electric and self-driving vehicles. Ziegler said this new breed of autonomous vehicles will emerge as “rooms with wheels.”
“As cars become autonomous, they don’t have to look or feel like a car,” Ziegler said. “They may look like a game room or a man cave. You will have vehicles you can drive in a completely different way than you do today, and the impact of that on the hospitality and airline industry will be disruptive.”
With the advent of other technologies such as AI, autonomous vehicles that operate like hotel suites on wheels may also make decisions and spend money on our behalves. Ziegler said “know your customer (KYC)” is just as important as “know your machine (KYM).”
“Let’s say you are traveling and you get stuck in traffic and your flight is about to take off,” Ziegler said. “Your car, in the not too distant future, can pay other cars to get out of your way. You give rules to your car and your car can make decisions on your behalf.”
While autonomous vehicles continue to gain traction, flying car projects are also underway. Boeing’s flying car completed its first test flight in January, while Miami is building high-rise luxury condos with landing pads for flying cars.
“With so many people moving to cities in 25 to 30 years, our roads at some point can no longer handle these vehicles,” Ziegler said. “With residences, we move up. With cars, we have to go up into the air or go down. That’s why flying cars and underground Hyperloop networks are happening.”
3. Artificial Intelligence
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google, said that “artificial intelligence could have more profound implications for humanity than electricity or fire.”
Driven by AI, automatic speech recognition (ASR) and text generation open a new frontier for human performance, allowing for faster and more creative processing of information. Jordan Mizrachi, account executive of Verbit.ai, said the company builds AI technology that incorporates “acoustic and linguistic models” to optimize transcription and captioning accuracy.
“AI is able to reach an accuracy of about 90 percent, which is unparalleled in any other technology,” Mizrachi said.
Reduct, an AI-powered cloud video platform, automatically transcribes any speech in a video uploaded by the end user. It can tag each word to the corresponding visual frame, and users can edit text while watching their videos automatically do the same.
“We’re the first text-based video editor,” said Kyle Wesson, Reduct’s business operations engineer. “The technology leverages human transcription, machine learning and smart algorithms to do precise time synchronization of the transcript to the video.”
AI has a wide breadth of uses beyond ASR. In Australia, advanced biometric facial and fingerprint recognition in lieu of a passport is in the works. Face++, a cognitive services provider in China, allows train stations to match passengers’ tickets to their IDs using face scanning. In the territory of conversational commerce, AI-powered virtual assistant is transforming our relationships with brands.
“AVA, Autodesk’s virtual agent, is an empathic digital human being trained to respond the way a human would,” Ziegler said. “There is no limit to how many conversations she can handle at the same time because she is infinitely scaleable. Google assistant has been downloaded to one billion devices and Alexa got over one million marriage proposals.”
While AI can be coached, one debate is the extent to which AI can learn and develop things on its own, not just repeating tasks that are predictive.
“Can AI create and do things on its own?” Ziegler said. “The answer is yes. Last year, a painting created by AI sold for more than $430K at Christie’s auction.”
4. Robots and drones
Robot farmers developed in the U.K. are able to successfully harvest barley by themselves. In Japan, H.I.S., a travel agency that owns the world’s first hotel staffed by robots, aims to have 100 robot hotels in operation by 2021. Disney Imagineering, the research arm of Walt Disney Company, created a robotic stuntman last year that can catapult into the air.
Companies worldwide are investing heavily in a robotic future. The XPrize Foundation announced last year a $10 million prize, sponsored by All Nippon Airways (ANA), to attract top-notch developers to a four-year global competition. The vision is to develop an Avatar System that can remotely transmit sensory data to the operator in real time.
“Let’s say the robotic Avatar is at the Olympics in Tokyo,” Ziegler said. “If an athlete gives the Avatar a high-five and I’m connected to its system, I will feel the high-five even if I’m staying in Chicago.”
The future is here
In the “most exciting time of our collective lives,” Ziegler said business leaders should consider how to craft market conditions where ideas are generated continuously, act on these ideas, and spread them throughout organizations to make human lives “legitimately better.”
“Lots of people do number one, but they don’t have the mechanism to translate that into actual work and they certainly don’t tell the story and narrate through it,” Ziegler said.
Technological advances spark an unprecedented degree of complexity and ambiguity. Those companies that are the most successful should be the ones most worried about the future.
“Those companies that are the most successful are least worried about the future because they think they are Gods,” Ziegler said. “But for those whose revenues start to be disrupted by new technologies, they are already on a downward spiral and it’s almost too late for them.”
Photo at top: Elizabeth “Betsy” Ziegler, CEO of 1871, gave her keynote speech “The Future is Now” during the 2019 ABA TECHSHOW in Chicago. (Xieyang Jessica Qiao/MEDILL)