UPDATE from University Tech Park | Fall 2015

SPOTLIGHT on: SmarterShade Inc. 

Smart glass done simpler -- and better

With global recognition from the Association of University Research Parks (AURP) and a new parent company guiding them toward U.S. opportunities, the team at SmarterShade Inc. sees blue skies ahead.

Company founder Mike Stacey accepted AURP's 2015 Innovation Award award at the association's conference this month in Buffalo, New York - just two months after the announcement that the UTP-based startup had been acquired by VG SmartGlass of Jupiter, Florida. The company is also in the running for a People's Choice Award as part of the 2015 Chicago Innovation Awards. 
SmarterShade's winning record stretches back to 2007, when Stacey and his partners entered their first business plan competition at Notre Dame University. 
The concept behind SmarterShade's patented, film-based smart glass technology was born that year when Stacey, working on his MBA at the time, met engineering undergrads Ryan Tatzel and Will McLeod.
"The three of us were very interested in energy efficiency," Stacey says, "and we discussed the fact that windows are the weakest links in a building's envelope in terms of energy loss. But blinds and shades don't solve the problem, and traditional smart glass hadn't gained much traction because it was too complex and expensive."
Launching with $50k in grant and prize funds
Tatzel and McLeod shared their ideas for a room-darkening technology based on the science of polarization, the same concept behind sunglasses. Teaming up with Stacey, they put together a pitch that captured first prize at Notre Dame and another Indiana-based competition plus a grant, garnering some $50,000 the partners used to found their first company, LONO, LLC. 
LONO's mission was to conduct research and refine the original film-based concept. By late 2011 the partners had formed SmarterShade, Inc. to commercialize the new technology and hold all future patents.
"We were excited about the possibilities," Stacey says. "Unlike other forms of smart glass, our concept doesn't require power or depend on chemical reactions. It works at the flip of a switch and controls for privacy, glare and energy savings all in one."

Chicago: the right hometown
After earning his MBA in 2007, Stacey worked as a consultant for other businesses while feeding SmarterShade's growth. In late 2011, with several U.S. patents in place, he hit the business plan competition circuit again, seeking wider attention and financial support.
"We'd heard the place to raise money was definitely on the coasts, and we did find funders in Boston and San Francisco," he says, "but when it came to thinking about where to locate, we noticed that most of the major window and door manufacturers were in the Midwest."
Seen from that vantage point, Chicago's emerging tech scene seemed more promising. The turning point came when Stacey met UTP officials at the 2013 Clean Energy Challenge, where SmarterShade captured the first-ever Lakeside Award sponsored by real estate developer McCaffery Interests and U.S. Steel Corp.
Joining a community of makers
"After touring the Tech Park, I knew this was a great location for us," he says. "IIT's leadership in engineering and architecture was a clear advantage. The chance to join a community of other startups working on tangible products, many of them focused on clean energy, was another big plus."
From its new space at UTP, the company sought relationships with the manufacturers of roll-to-roll films used to make TV and mobile phone screens. "These suppliers make film systems to our specifications, which we in turn license to manufacturers of doors and windows for integration into their products," Stacey explains.

The resources inside IIT's Idea Shop have been key in demonstrating how SmarterShade systems function within finished glass panels.
"We've worked with some very skilled IIT students to create prototypes that look and function exactly like our customers' products," says Stacey. Prototypes shipped earlier this year introduced potential customers to SmarterShade's Invisiblind system for residential and commercial door panels.
Two of the IIT engineering graduates who helped build the prototypes have since joined the company's full-time staff, Stacey says.
Thinking big - and tall
SmarterShade's concept continues to capture attention among clean-energy leaders. In June, Stacey spoke on a panel at the  White House Clean Energy Investment Summit. Earlier this spring, Wells Fargo named the company among its first group of innovation partners, who together will receive $5 million over the next 5 years to develop clean tech concepts.
The company has already made its first sales in Europe, supplying UK-based Intastop, a leading maker of interior doors and windows for commercial buildings, with films to create privacy panels with double the clear viewing space of earlier models. The panels will be used for patient rooms in hospitals, where privacy can be achieved with the quick turn of a dial.  
A major deal with a Japanese film manufacturer is expected soon, and with extensive industry contacts provided by VG SmartGlass, agreements with U.S.-focused glass manufacturers are not far behind, Stacey says.
"The Department of Energy has estimated that dynamic glazing solutions can save more than $10 billion annually in heating and cooling costs," he points out. "As architects and engineers seek greater energy efficiency, we're confident that our technology will make its way into homes across the country and become part of massive skyscrapers like the Willis Tower. It won't happen overnight - it will take capital, time and a lot of work. But we know it can be done."

Cleversafe will join Big Blue
On October 5, IBM announced an agreement to acquire Cleversafe, the cloud-storage leader that in 2005 became UTP's first startup in residence.

Founder Chris Gladwin and team foresaw the massive data storage needs within many industries, creating unique, cost-effective solutions for IBM, HP, Lockheed Martin, photo-sharing giant Shutterfly and media storage provider Sky. "We're delighted for Cleversafe and proud of our role in their early-stage growth," says UTP Executive Director David Baker. "Chris tapped into the reservoir of computer science talent at Illinois Tech to build out his solutions and establish a strong IP portfolio."
Croatian visit expands our international network
UTP Director Catherine Vorwald visited STEP Ri Science and Tech Park on the University of Rijeka campus this September, serving as a judge in the park's business competition. Her trip also included a visit to Razvojna Agencija Zagrebwhere she met with innovation leaders and startup founders interested in sharing resources through UTP's growing international network.

Lithuanian delegation gets a taste of U.S. innovation
David Baker treated innovators from Lithuania to an all-American meal of grilled hot dogs and burgers this August, just one highlight of a 4-week acceleration program that gave the companies a chance to build their businesses American style. Baker and Nik Rokop, Industry Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at IIT, served as mentors and guides for the companies, introducing them to all aspects of Chicago's tech ecosystem and working with them to develop their business plans and pitches.
PixelEXX garners dual honors
On September 30, UTP graduate company PixelEXX captured the top award in the first-ever Startup Challenge hosted by Women in Bio Chicago. The company was also named one of 20 semi-finalists in AdvaMed's MedTech Innovator 2015 competition. PixelEXX founder Renee Carder and her team have developed an endoscopic camera the size of a grain of sand - an essential tool for physicians seeking smaller, smarter visualization tools to facilitate minimally invasive procedures.

AllCell to build charging stations in Jordan
Tech Park graduate AllCell Technologies has signed an agreement with the government of Jordan to build 3,000 solar-powered electric charging stations across the country. The $120-million deal - AllCell's largest to date - confirms that this thriving startup has come into its own, says founder and CEO Said Al-Hallaj. David Baker offers more perspective in his recent blog post on clean tech innovation trends in Chicago.