NU Winner, 3D Printers & More – Chicago Innovation Awards Reflections 2013

In October, Northwestern’s Master of Engineering Management program became a VIP member of the Chicago Innovation Awards and so were able to send four MEM students to attend this event and a follow-up networking dinner. Here, two of of those students share their impressions on combining engineering and art, the recent proliferation of 3D printing, and an evaluation of the start-up scene in Chicago.

By Jennifer Wei

We all know about STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—but what about STEAM?  The A in “STEAM” stands for “Art.” The concept of the new acronym STEAM was introduced at the Chicago Innovation Awards on Wednesday, October 30th.


The idea of STEAM is completely in line with Dean Ottino’s “whole-brain engineering” philosophy for the McCormick School of Engineering.  The McCormick school firmly believes that a true engineer utilizes both the left-brain (logic, analytics) as well as the right side (creativity, intuition).  It was interesting to see how this was captured on a larger scale at the Chicago Innovation Awards—and is a strong indicator that Northwestern and the McCormick School of Engineering have been moving in the right direction.

I had the privilege of representing MEM at this event, and wanted to share some interesting recognitions.

My favorite two recognitions were Everpurse and iLight’s SpellBrite.  Everpurse is a bag that charges your phone on the go.  The purse itself has an inductive charging mat which charges the phone.  It comes in various styles and patterns.  What a great combination of fashion and technology!

Next, iLight Technologies, Inc. was honored for SpellBrite, an LED signage system that is very flexible and allows the user to easily change the spelling.  Think Lego LED signs.  This is going to be very popular with businesses that use storefront displays to advertise.  No more chalk boards of happy hour specials or flyers taped onto windows!

Most importantly,  Northwestern’s very own SiNode was honored with an “Up & Comer” Award.  SiNode is a highly scalable and low cost solution to the traditional Lithium-ion battery.  It is mechanically flexible and has much higher performance.   The other innovation that was recognized was SwipeSense.  SwipeSense is a hand hygiene solution that allows corporations to get real-time feedback on usage.  It is portable and allows healthcare professionals to wash their hands at any time.


Finally, 3-D printing made a strong showing throughout the event–there were numerous references to 3D printing.  Even the trophies for the innovation awards were printed! One of the first groups recognized was the Chicago Public Library’s MADE Lab for their new 3-D printing lab that allows users to learn more about rapid prototyping while gaining hands-on experience.

Our very own Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, where most MEM classes are held, also has a rapid prototyping lab with its very own 3-D printer.  Before I left Motorola Solutions, our lab had  acquired similar equipment, and prior to that one of my colleagues left to start his own 3-D printer business targeted at consumers.

There seems to be a strong correlation between the increase of innovation, and the proliferation of rapid prototyping facilities.  But what does this mean for the future of engineering?  If CAD and prototyping become part of a standard toolset for the average person, how will this affect the demand for Mechanical Engineers?  Will engineers need to gain further skillsets?  Only time will tell, but it’s a good thing I am earning an MEM degree!

Attending the Chicago Innovation Awards was a terrific experience.  It was inspiring to see real applications of engineering and innovation (and from a crowd of predominantly <30 years old!). I learned a significant amount about innovation, engineering, and technology.  But my learning was not limited to science.  I also learned that William Shakespeare invented the word “suburb.”  What an inspiring “whole brain” event.


By Ali Hemmati

The after party for the Innovation Awards was a very enjoyable networking and socializing event. The event was held at Park Grill, which is located in Millennium Park. It was very nice to see that Northwestern, especially the MEM program, had a presence in the event, including a professor and several students. We were able to talk to many people from varying industries including technology, research, non-profit, finance and many more.

The main reason these people had chosen to come to this event was that they wanted to be part of a quickly growing field of entrepreneurship. The Chicagoland area is rapidly becoming one of the hottest cities for start-ups. Many that were present at this event were either standalone or part of a larger company. It was interesting to notice that the new trend for larger companies is to showcase new divisions or new ventures as start-ups and not as part of a large and well-established corporation.

Of course, no entrepreneurship award is without its venture capitalists. There were more than handful of investors who were not necessarily looking at the winners of the awards, but were on a quest to find the next best idea or start-up. Chicago Innovation Awards provides a haven for all innovators, investors, and spectators to gather, exchange ideas, and even make the next big move. An event like this only happens once a year, so in today’s quickly advancing world, if you miss it then you have to wait a year (which translates into a decade in today’s time) for another such event to happen.

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