No summer vacation for innovation at Polsky Center

Students at UChicago’s innovation hub work on startups, social impact

There’s no summer slowdown at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Walk through the University of Chicago’s innovation hub, and you’ll hear about a new web platform to help employers purchase health care plans or see data scientists around a whiteboard building a computer model to predict school dropout rates in El Salvador. In one room, high school students are learning code by rebuilding their own program’s website, while in the “Fab Lab,” a public policy student experiments with laser-cutting acrylic art.

The 34,000-square-foot incubator and coworking space on 53rd Street is the summer home for the Polsky Accelerator, the Data Science for Social Good Fellowship and Coderspace. So while some in Hyde Park escape to Promontory Point, student coders, makers and entrepreneurs create an electric atmosphere where ideas thrive and individuals with a wide variety of interests can mix and mingle.

“A hallmark of the Polsky Center is that we work with entrepreneurs and innovators from all backgrounds and interests,” said Starr Marcello, executive director of the Polsky Center and adjunct assistant professor of entrepreneurship at UChicago’s Booth School of Business. “We connect people across campus, and across the community, to develop and grow their ideas. The programs working side-by-side in the space this summer are the perfect example of the Polsky Center’s dedication to forging connections that can have lasting, real-world impact.”

Morning: How to jump start a startup

From afar, Melissa Harris’ presentation to the Polsky Accelerator looks more like calisthenics than entrepreneurial advice. Everyone is asked to stand up, lift their arms to the sky and take a deep breath before they speak, getting into a confident posture for delivering a terse, snappy elevator pitch for their startups.

“Good presentations are like good songs,” Harris, an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Polsky Center, tells the group. “You need to project variation and enthusiasm.”

The morning session is part of a teaching doubleheader for the Polsky Accelerator, which provides 14 student startup teams with a $10,000 investment and dedicated working space at the Polsky Center as part of its 10-week summer program. Earlier, startup teams took a deep dive into product forecasting with Art Middlebrooks, executive director of the Kilts Center for Marketing at Chicago Booth.

For the rest of the day, the Polsky Accelerator teams work with student staff members and interns on the many challenges of growing a new business: fundraising, prototyping, marketing, human resources and—hopefully—sales. At one table, the founders of AI-meets-skincare startup Veda Grace Dermatology talk with the students and software developers working on Fiduscript, an online marketplace for the overdose reversal drug Naloxone. The collaboration goes beyond teams to alumni, Booth and Polsky experts, and entrepreneurs from the Chicago business world.

“Putting these entrepreneurs in one space and giving them an opportunity to bond, essentially it creates a strong sense of family,” said Crissy Ritter, assistant director for experiential entrepreneurship and venture support with the Polsky Center. “Entrepreneurship can be a really lonely journey, so this is a way for them to work with peers. They’re never working through things alone, they always have someone to bounce ideas off of and work through challenges and solutions.”

Kati Karrotki and Tyler Huggins of BTRFY, a company using fungal fermentation to create healthy and environmentally friendly snacks, said that the combination of resources and the open environment is providing their business with an essential boost this summer.

“It just gives you a home,” Karrotki said. “They have a tremendous sense of all the blind spots you have as a startup.”

Lunchtime: Data and impact from Chicago to Jakarta

Just a few steps from the BTRFY team, Data Science for Social Good fellows Joao Caldeira, Alex Fout, Aniket Kesari and Raesetje Sefala comb through video footage from traffic cameras in Jakarta. Below an Indonesian flag, they’re training computer vision algorithms to automatically detect objects and hazards—such as a vehicle driving the wrong way, or a motorcycle riding on the sidewalk—as they work with Jakarta Smart City and UN Global Pulse, Jakarta to make the city’s streets safer.

Since 2013, the DSSG fellowship has played matchmaker for ambitious projects, bringing together undergraduate and graduate students in computer science, statistics and the social sciences to work with nonprofit and government partners. To date, the UChicago program has organized more than 70 projects, each designed to help partners do more with their data, from keeping kids in school to earlier diabetes screening to creating smarter building inspections.

This summer, DSSG set up shop at the Polsky Center, bringing them closer to the UChicago campus community. It’s also the fellowship’s most international year to date, with cohorts of fellows and projects running simultaneously in Chicago and Lisbon.

“This is the most diverse year yet of Data Science for Social Good—from the mix of fellows and partners at our two simultaneous sites, to the range of problems that our project teams will address and the methods they will use,” said DSSG global director Rayid Ghani, a senior fellow at the UChicago Harris School of Public Policy and research associate professor in the Department of Computer Science.

The lunchtime training session focuses on a point of concern in today’s artificial intelligence community: the persistence of societal bias in supposedly “objective” data-driven models. Center of Data Science and Public Policy postdoctoral researcher Pedro Saleiro walks the 23 DSSG Chicago fellows through examples of discriminatory results from data-driven models used for setting bail or promoting employees.

Later, a weekly discussion evolved from technical concerns into a broader conversation of how their work will impact government agencies and the populations they serve.

“I believe that one larger impact that is within reach, for DSSG projects, is the potential to spark institutional change towards more systematic and sustainable data management practice and evidence-based public policymaking,” said Mirian Lima, a DSSG project manager. “That’s really important.”

Early afternoon: Debugging basses in the Fab Lab

Across the street in another Polsky Center building, a very different kind of experimentation is taking place: one that requires safety goggles and hearing protection.

In the Polsky Fabrication Lab, dubbed the Polsky Fab Lab, Polsky member Andrew Hassel and intern Harry Critchfield-Jain hover over the ShopBot, a wood-cutting machine controlled by a nearby computer. When Hassel, a luthier and owner of Chicago Bass Works, hits “go” on the 3-D modeling program, the ShopBot sends a drill bit for several passes across a large slab of wood, creating a sharp 90-degree edge in what will become the body of a double bass.

“Normally this step would take me six to eight hours by hand,” Hassell says after the machine finishes its work in a mere five minutes. “You can imagine the amount of psychological stress this will save.”

In addition to the ShopBot, the Polsky Fab Lab features devices for 3-D printing, laser etching and vinyl cutting, as well as kits for experimenting with microcontrollers, circuits and other hardware. Polsky members, Accelerator teams, Incubator companies and UChicago community members use the facility for designing and prototyping products, or just picking up new skills.

"Summer is generally an active time in the Fab Lab, and our classes this summer have been particularly full,” said Elizabeth Koprucki, assistant director, Fab Lab and design at the Polsky Center. “One of the Accelerator companies, D20 Robotics, has prototyped some parts with us, and we've also had artists from Hyde Park Arts Center and the Arts Incubator creating work. We help people make their ideas tangible using hardware, software and the design process."

Late afternoon: A crash course in code and co-working

During their daily report, the youngest coders at the Polsky Center share a common programming gripe—merging the work of multiple teams on the popular code-sharing site GitHub.

“It’s glorious if it works,” said Sean Batey-Johnson, a student at South Shore College Prep. “But if it doesn’t, you sit there for hours.”

Sensing frustration, CoderSpace co-founder Arelia Jones reassures the high school student presenters that their headaches are a sign of progress.

“You’re using technology used by professional developers every day” said Jones, a software engineer at Sprout Social. “So running into issues is OK! This is valuable experience.”

Founded in 2015, CoderSpace brings in a new class of high school students each summer and introduces them to programming through experience on a real-world project. This year students are working together on a common goal: redesigning the Coderspace website from scratch, including new styling, custom forms and a store for fundraising.

As the day comes to an end, each team presents their progress and the remaining “blockers” to be resolved before the new site launches. The instructors — all alumni of earlier CoderSpace summers — then give the students information on the next day’s travel to Sprout Social’s downtown headquarters, the latest in a line of business trips to the offices of companies such as Grubhub (former products of the Polsky Center) and Microsoft.

By basing CoderSpace completely in the Polsky Center for the first time, Jones said that the students observe other team-based projects in the Polsky Accelerator and DSSG as they pursue their own collaborative efforts.

“We’ve learned a lot about what it’s like to work in a tech environment,” Janiya Hudson, a student at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, told the DSSG fellows during a recent presentation of their work. “We sit in here and watch you guys out there and try to mimic what you’re doing.”