Brian Bannon, CPL Commissioner, talks at the Microsoft/CPL Demo Day (Credit: Chicago Inno)

In recent years, the Chicago Public Library system has been more than just a place to check out books.

CPL has installed everything from robot maker labs to 3D printers to recording studios, in many of its 79 branches across the city– initiatives that foster the talent of rising innovators (like indie hip hop star Chance the Rapper, who recorded his debut mix tape at a library studio).

But CPL doesn’t want to stop there, and they are tapping Chicago’s entrepreneurial talent for their next move. On Wednesday, six Chicago-area education, media, and maker startups pitched partnerships to CPL administrators in hopes of connecting their businesses with one of the city’s most utilized public resources.

“How can we use technology to help our neighborhoods and all Chicago citizens?” said Shelley Stern Grach, director of civic engagement at Microsoft Chicago, the corporate partner that brought CPL on board.

“The library is a really important place to connect people to education, to jobs, to business, and many other things,” said Brian Bannon, CPL commissioner. “How do we leverage that infrastructure to help people leverage their lives and their community?”

Six Illinois and Chicago-area startups sought to answer that exact question: Youtopia, Horizon Educational, Electroninks, Mobile Makers, Storymix Media, and ThinkCERCA.

The event was spearheaded by the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition (ISTC), an organization that connects stakeholders and community groups that deal in regional innovation, as part of their Corporate Startup Challenge. Microsoft, this year’s corporate partner, decided to collaborate with Chicago Public Libraries. ISTC then screened startups for the demo day, and CPL had final say on who would participate.

“[Microsoft’s] addition of CPL into the program was an excellent way to advance civic innovation and new connectivity with their programs and initiatives,” said Mark Harris, ISTC president and CEO.

Startups suggested partnerships that ranged from training teachers in fuel cell demo kits to collaborative video editing software that could be set up through accounts at different branches. Youtopia imagined extending their digital badge system through the library. Mobile Makers, an app coding after school program, who said they currently work more in suburban areas, hoped to work with CPL to get their program to students with fewer resources. ThinkCERCA said that training CPL tutors in ThinkCERCA’s program, and pointing students who use the program in schools to those tutors, could create a more fluid learning experience from in-class to after school.

All the startups talked about how they consider the library an extension of education in the city and as an innovative institution working to close the digital divide. Even Circuit Scribe, a rollerball pen that writes in conductive silver ink so students can create working circuits on paper, a company who recently moved headquarters from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to Austin, Texas, said it made sense to keep in touch here.

“CPL is a very large and active library with a huge educational outreach footprint,” said Brett Walker, co-founder and CEO of Electroninks, the company that makes Circuit Scribe. “So they’re a natural partner for us moving forward. We’re also doing our best to maintain Illinois ties due to the thriving entrepreneurial and tech community here.”

The day was more about getting startups and CPL collaborating, so no solid decisions have been announced–yet. But stay tuned said Bannon.

“It has been a chance to learn and hear what’s going on, new ways of thinking– we didn’t know what to expect,” said Bannon to Chicago Inno after the presentations. “They touched along the spectrum of what we’ve been exploring.”