Our second day in Chicago started with a trip to The Mill, a visual effects, creative content, post-production and content delivery business which started life in London in 1990 – with significant investment backing from Irish rockers U2 (who sold their stake in 2001).
If you want a bit of wow factor, check out The Blackbird, which they created to enable car adverts to be filmed without needing the actual car. I think their video will explain that better than I can!
After an overview of the company’s history and current offerings, there was a useful discussion about The Mill’s presence in Chicago. They were the first British VFX business to open shop in the States, starting with New York and Los Angeles, and then Chicago in 2013. Their strategy of relocating key talent between offices has clearly created exciting opportunities for their staff, while also proving successful in terms of striking the right balance between centralised know-how and local intelligence. As they put it, “The Mill brought London to America.” It was also a good chance to hear about some of the practicalities around office space and visas for employees transferring from the UK.
Then it was time for a bit more wow factor with the opportunity to try out some recent virtual reality projects The Mill have been working on, much of which has been in collaboration with Google ATP, including an interactive Tilt Brush application – which is somewhat mind-blowing, even if to onlookers you don’t exactly look at your most dignified.
The main tenants in The Mill’s West Loop building – a former cold-store warehouse which has been renovated in a stunning new style – are Google themselves, so we were able to take a brief but interesting tour of the Google offices. Photos aren’t permitted other than in the reception area, where there is a 41-screen video wall of moving gears, which (I’m told) required more complex programming than you might expect.
After lunch it was over to the iconic Chase Tower, for an event hosted by J.P. Morgan to discuss ways in which large corporates can work with (comparatively much smaller) start-ups and scale-ups. The views from the fifty-seventh floor are truly spectacular – especially if you get a beautiful sunny day – although attempts to take photographs of the Willis Tower (which I still think of as the Sears Tower) and Lake Michigan can’t really capture the sense of it.
After an introduction by London’s Deputy Mayor for Business, Rajesh Agrawal, there was a wide-ranging panel discussion with Praveen Sharma of United Airlines, Paul Steinberg of Motorola Solutions and veteran “rebooter” Dean DeBiase.
In United’s case they favour an approach in which they partner with start-ups to provide time and support, particularly around the analytics of valuable data about United’s 100m+ customers, whereas Motorola Solutions have a more hands-on approach, taking minority stakes in up-and-coming opportunities. Motorola Solutions have invested in over 200 businesses to date, with an active portfolio at any one time of between fifteen and twenty holdings.
So a busy day covering a lot of ground – more of which to cover on Day 3!