“It really made a difference.” McKinsey helps incubate AI startups

1871 was buzzing with energy and excitement. At the end of June, the Chicago-based nonprofit tech hub hosted its 2023 AI Innovation Lab, culminating in an AI Innovation Summit, a public capstone-like event. Thirty-nine startup founders from Chicago and around the country formed the cohort of the lab.

McKinsey associate partner Parisa Sbak, left, with Chicago-based McKinsey colleagues Adam Karpinski, Jack Looney, and Sneha Pathuri.
McKinsey associate partner Parisa Sbak, left, with Chicago-based McKinsey colleagues Adam Karpinski, Jack Looney, and Sneha Pathuri.
McKinsey associate partner Parisa Sbak, left, with Chicago-based McKinsey colleagues Adam Karpinski, Jack Looney, and Sneha Pathuri.

The day of programming at the summit, which the cohort had been preparing for throughout the three-month lab program, gave them the chance to pitch their companies in front of roughly 300 local VCs, AI experts, CXOs, founders, and corporate innovators. The event also served the local community, providing anyone with the opportunity to attend the plenary and breakout rooms.

Known for supporting its members through curated programming, resources, and community events, 1871 is home to roughly 500 early-stage tech startups, 250 growth- and late-stage companies, 60 corporates, and thousands of members. It exists to drive inclusive, sustainable economic development, fostering innovation, job creation, and prosperity in Chicago and beyond.

McKinsey joined the AI Innovation Lab as an anchor sponsor. In addition to financial support, we held speaker series, mentorship rounds, and workshops at the AI Summit to work directly with the startup founders. Topics covered included product development tips and tricks, go-to-market strategies, and lessons from startup CEOs.

The McKinsey demo served as a starter for how we should be using LLM in our work with cancer data.

Dennis Trujillo, founder of Mercurial AI, a cancer care solution.

“At 1871, we believe that problem solving is a team sport,” says Betsy Ziegler, CEO of 1871 and former McKinsey partner (‘98-11). “AI will touch everything we do eventually. We need leaders from across industries, functions and companies to challenge the status quo, encourage experimentation, and drive partnerships. That is when positive change happens. It is great to be in an active partnership with the firm on one of the most important topics of our generation.”

Over 30 firm leaders participated, including associate partner Parisa Sbak. “It’s always energizing to play a part in local innovation,” says Parisa. “We at McKinsey were inspired by the track record of 1871 and excited to contribute—and learn. The innovations aimed to improve the lives and livelihood of communities to sustainability and green business building. We are honored to have mentored the founders.”

Below are key takeaways of the program from three participants.

Dennis Trujillo, CEO, Mercurial AI, Inc.

Dennis Trujillo, CEO, Mercurial AI, Inc.
Dennis Trujillo
Dennis Trujillo, CEO, Mercurial AI, Inc.

Mercurial AI is harnessing AI and computer vision to transform cancer care, both by expediting treatment plans for doctors and assisting patients in navigating their care.

There were so many helpful insights from the McKinsey team that we have used to help build our demos. The healthcare session was particularly useful because it focused on large language models (LLM) in the healthcare space. The McKinsey demo served as a starter idea for how we should be using LLM in our work with cancer data. We’ve built a solution tailored to cancer care specifically and used the McKinsey demo as a springboard for our own development in this niche sector.

The feedback the McKinsey mentors provided was very pertinent because it got us to narrow our targeted end consumer to payors in the medical space. They also helped facilitate connections to payors—that was key. I then refined how to approach investors. We got to pitch a VC we’d been targeting recently, and we only got to do that because of our participation in 1871 and the opportunities it opened.

Marc Ward, founder, Socian Technologies

Marc Ward, founder, Socian Technologies
Marc Ward
Marc Ward, founder, Socian Technologies

Socian technologies has developed The EDGE System, a drone solution that can help officers identify when someone is armed or not—thereby reducing unnecessary violence.

When I started my autonomous drone systems company, the investors said ‘focus on software and don’t build out the hardware.’ But that didn’t feel right to me, and I developed both together. After listening to those in the 1871 cohort as well as my customers right here in the local Chicago community—as opposed to VCs removed from it—my model of both hardware and software development has been validated and I now have the momentum to proceed.

In a seat of CEO where I don’t get much validation, especially from my background, it’s hard out there. But in this program, it’s about building and validating what’s next. I mean, when would I, as an underrepresented and underestimated founder, have this opportunity to talk to a partner at McKinsey about digital transformation? It really made a difference.

I was so proud to win the People’s Choice award because I built this tech for the people, and many at the event told me how needed this tech is in their communities.

Alane Boyd, co-founder & CEO, Arvo

Alane Boyd, co-founder & CEO, Arvo
Alane Boyd
Alane Boyd, co-founder & CEO, Arvo

Arvo is an AI-powered sales tool that simplifies creating proposals, case studies, client portals, and more for sales, training, and scaling.

We came into 1871 thinking about integrating AI into Arvo on a superficial level, like text prompts and outputs. But after this cohort, and what we’ve seen with customers, we need to think bigger: How can AI make life easier at work?

One way is through process documentation, such as standard operating procedures and training docs—not always a high priority for companies, but essential for scaling. How can we turn process documentation into the easiest thing you do at your company? Our eyes were opened to just how much of an impact AI can play in that mission.

Another big opportunity was presenting to an audience of business owners who are actively growing their companies, and to mentors from McKinsey. A customer doesn’t always give honest feedback after a pitch, but a room full of other founders and unbiased mentors will. You’ll see things you missed and refine how you describe your product to new users. If I’m not being clear to the other founders in the cohort, the customers I’m demoing to certainly won’t get it either.

Lastly, I will never forget McKinsey’s presentation on Digital Twins, because it is part of the bigger picture I needed to see on how companies are incorporating AI.

Note from McKinsey: We were saddened to learn that Marc Ward passed away unexpectedly shortly after this project concluded. His bright talent, innovation and warmth were infectious and an inspiration to all the McKinsey colleagues who worked with him. Our condolences go out to his family and colleagues.

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