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On Oct. 15, Steve Kaplan of the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation spoke with three of the world’s best tech entrepreneurs and investors about the booming venture capital market and their favorite startup categories, including cryptocurrency.

First, the trio confirmed that Chicago — with about a dozen “unicorn” companies created in 2021 —has a new advantage as a tech hub: geographic barriers crumbled under COVID-19. Meetings are virtual, which democratizes the investment landscape.

“There are great people everywhere.”

-Mar Hershenson, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Pear Ventures

 “When you can convey (a great idea) in a Zoom meeting, you’re able to get funded. A lot of VCs that may or may not have been focused on companies outside the coasts have just sought out really great problems, great founders with great metrics. And Chicago certainly has plenty of those.”

-Sach Chitnis, Co-Founder, Partner, Jump Capital

“It’s really hard to tell if a company is even based in Chicago anymore. How do you tell, especially some of the new companies starting from the ground up, and you’ve got employees globally. I don’t even know if they’re in Chicago anymore and that’s ok. It’s a different kind of structure.”

-Dana Wright, Managing Director, Math Venture Partners

Kaplan asked the trio to identify hot sectors for investment.

Where are the VCs putting in their time and what industries should Chicago entrepreneurs target? Hershenson picked climate change technologies, spanning from food and agriculture to big energy; investments in cryptocurrency; and non-traditional employment.

“A lot of people want to make money off their hobbies or passion or not work for anybody. There are a lot of exciting companies in that space.”

-Mar Hershenson, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Pear Ventures

Chitnis said he sees opportunities coming from fragmentation in the fintech industry (or “fragmentation of the wallet,” as he put it).

Where customers once had a single banking relationship, they now have three or four brokerage accounts and three cryptocurrency accounts. His firm is “beyond bullish” on crypto.

“A lot of people use the phrase that (crypto’s) going to be ‘the next internet,’ but I think that actually diminishes it…. In many ways it’s not just the next internet, it will replace the financial systems and capital markets. There’s a lot of ambition.”

-Sach Chitnis, Co-Founder, Partner, Jump Capital

Wright said her firm is looking at new technologies for businesses to improve their customer acquisition strategies. Specifically, how do companies build communities that can help jump-start sales?

“There’s a lot more of that right now: How does building a community, whether in your customer, whether it’s consumer side or B2B side, how does that really drive customer acquisition?”

-Dana Wright, Managing Director, Math Venture Partners

Is there a bubble in cryptocurrency?

“Companies I don’t even know have a 5x valuation and within a couple of months there’s multiple term sheets. It’s completely crazy. It feels a little bit like the dot-com (bubble) right now in that space. It’s really, really out of control. There will be great companies. It’s just that everybody is there.”

– Mar Hershenson, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Pear Ventures

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