Tech momentum recharged in new year

January 10, 2005


Chicago tech is on the move, thanks to MotoMountain, RIA and Boeing's Phantom Works.

I was feeling the post holiday blues. Things seemed slow and low energy. Then Motorola CEO Ed Zander erected a 60-foot-high "MotoMountain" with real snow and snowboarders at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Zander was promoting Motorola's new products made just for hip snowboarders. This guy Zander's a showman. He's got energy and pizzazz. He's officially from Chicago. He's turning Motorola around. Maybe we should put the "MotoMountain" in Millennium Park.

I felt a surge of energy.

Then I thought about RIA. No, she's not my girlfriend. Even better. RIA is the federally funded rare isotope accelerator project. It's worth a cool $1 billion in funding and 16,000 construction jobs.

Somewhere out there, former Gov. Jim Thompson and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley are twisting arms to land this project at Argonne National Labs. It could happen.

My pulse rate quickened.

Then I got a call from David Daniel, dean of the college of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Daniel says Boeing's Phantom Works unit just made one of "the largest corporate commitments to research ever" at his college of engineering.

The dean and Boeing won't disclose amounts, but it's probably in the millions and it holds enormous significance for our state.

Phantom Works is the research arm of the $50 billion Boeing Corp., a company that spends roughly $1.6 billion annually on R&D. Phantom Works could go anywhere in the world to invest its dollars. Phantom just hugged the University of Illinois. It's a huge win.

Gary Fitzmire, Boeing vice president of engineering and information technology, will lead the Boeing side of the collaboration, and credits retired Boeing CTO David Swain with opening the dialogue at U. of I.

Daniel proved savvy. He recognized the importance of research in information security and trustworthy computer systems.

"When you think of airplanes, you think of jet engines," Daniel says. "A very substantial amount of what goes into an airplane is computers and information systems."

He established a new Information Trust Institute, consolidating resources across the university. He named a rising faculty star, William Sanders, 43, to direct the institute. Daniel describes Sanders as the "driving force behind the deal, and a real dynamo."

While specific research projects are being defined, the institute's efforts might include new approaches to airport security, efforts to reduce mechanical delays and projects exploring the impact of airborne Internet and cell-phone use.

"Anything that is electronic and involves information falls within the purview" Daniel says.

How do we create more partnerships? Old-fashioned salesmanship, Daniel says.

"Identify their research needs, and push the capabilities we have," he says. The formula works great for Daniel's world- class engineering school.

According to Fitzmire, preliminary partnership talks are also under way at Northwestern.

The weather outside might be icy, but it's beginning to feel like California in Illinois.

A Better Mousetrap

First Tuesday's were a hallmark of Chicago's dot-com era. Initially founded in London to bring together entrepreneurs, service providers and venture capitalists, First Tuesday's networking events were imported to Chicago by David Jacobson, a partner at Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal.

If he had it to do over again, Jacobson says, "I would try to figure out more ways to stratify the group."

He'd aim to get the right people into smaller groups where they could participate, he says.

Now a new generation of networkers is improving on Jacobson's model. Brad Spirrison, Adam Fendelman and Josh Metnick, the triad behind ePrairie, Chicago's online technology newsletter, have launched eXtreme Networking.

"We plan to do several dozen events in 2005," says Spirrison, who's built a software platform that matches up high potential individuals who can help each other grow their businesses.

"I don't think tech events ever went away. People now have the option to network in a more systematic format," he says. "People want to get a return for their time invested in a networking session. That's what we're trying to accommodate."

Michael Krauss is a Chicago-based tech writer and consultant.



 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners