Chicago Needs to 'Tech Local' for the Seed to Grow
Chicago talks a lot of about the "building" of this emerging startup culture and infrastructure, but are we doing enough to actually support and sustain the community that's being built? Being a fan of a new residential building is great. But are you going to live there?
"There is a gap in connecting small startups with large Chicago corporations and companies," said Jeff Cantalupo, CEO and Founder of Listen, a seed stage investment fund and brand strategy firm. "Large companies don't have a group responsible for connecting to younger, local startups; they often look to their agencies to bring them innovative technologies and ideas vs. actively evaluating the marketplace for whats out there."
To understand what needs to be done, you can look at the thriving 'Eat Local' movement that is now part of the cultural subconscious.
In 2012, the USDA released a report recognizing the importance of locally grown food. Since then, Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) have become the hottest trend in food, with more than 12,500 farms now sourcing their local communities and countless farm-to-table restaurants popping up in every town.
This boom was due to a variety of factors including presidential support - President Obama's plan for rural America led to significant investment in CSA programs - regional initiatives like 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,' and - most importantly - interest from consumers and local businesses, like restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and distributors.
The tech revolution in Chicago has the first two factors locked down. With tremendous support from Governor Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the tech community is being provided ample State and Federal resources. In fact, Chicago received $70 million from the Department of Defense to build the Digital Lab for Manufacturing, an institute focused on digital manufacturing and design that will be setting up shop on Goose Island.
Incubators like 1871, Catapult, MATTER, Blue 1647, along with conferences such as Techweek, Ideas Week, and The Moxie Awards, prove that there's no lack of initiatives to help fuel this government funding and support.
But these two elements will be for naught without consumer and commercial interest. And we're just not doing a good enough job of generating this interest and delivering on it.
“There needs to be more of a "BUY LOCAL" commitment and movement to help propel the city," said Cantalupo. "For example, if a large Chicago organization is looking for a certain tech solution, we need to make sure that they evaluate the Chicago market to see if there is a company offering that solution.”
The Innovation Ecosystem. Via IllinoisInnovation.com.
The ISTC, the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, is starting this movement via the Illinois Corporate Startup Challenge. Every six months, the initiative assembles a class of Fortune 1000 corporations and pairs them with startups that address their innovation needs through a highly curated matchmaking process.
Though "it's a little too early to publicize the wins," said Alya Adamany Woods, Managing Director of the Illinois Innovation Network, she did confirm that "50% of the startup pitches went on to second meetings, next steps, and beyond." The initiative was also such a success that they're already in the "needs-assessment phase with the next round of big corporations."
Also, as a new publication, it's our responsibility to help with this cause by identifying and trumpeting the cases in which Chicago companies use Chicago software and startups, like GrubHub employing Sprout Social for its social media monitoring. Also, yesterday, Peapod announced that they'll be partnering up with Artizone, a company that delivers local meats, fish, cheeses, and other artisanal products to Chicagoans. On the other hand, we will also hold organizations accountable when the opposite occurs, like Techweek partnering with San Francisco-based Parking Panda instead of Chicago born-and-bred SpotHero for parking help.
But it all comes down to simply giving a damn.
Chicago businesses and consumers need to care about working with local tech and actively seeking it out, the way you would put on your shoes and actually walk to the farmer's market. (Even though Artizone is kind of making it so that you that don't even have to go outside - but that's besides the point).
Tech and startups, for the most part, aren't going to show up at your door. We need to actively embrace Chicago tech. For example, if you're going to get your dad a tie for Father's Day this year, surf The Tie Bar, a Naperville-based company. Or get him a Trunk Club membership.
Though it feels like the 'Eat Local' craze has been around forever, it's less than a decade old. The phenomenon got the federal support it needed, the farms delivered, and the people responded. Our Mayor's supportive, our developers are delivering - it's time we 'Tech Local' and get fat off of Chicago innovation.
© Illinois Science and Technology Coalition
Illustration by Dieter Braun