New tech alliance gives state breath of hope

January 24, 2005


You probably didn't see the birth announcement. The Illinois Technology Development Alliance was born last week. Its proud papa is veteran tech advocate Tom Thornton, who was named president.

If you care about job growth and economic progress in Illinois, this newborn organization is a breath of hope. Keep an eye on it.

Thornton's plan is simple: Stimulate growth in Illinois by helping emerging technology companies capitalize on the commercial power of their innovations. There are a lot of high potential tech startups out there starved for capital, customers and management talent. Thornton, 39, wants to be the marriage maker. He intends to coach startups and connect them with VCs.

He has $2.6 million in funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense's Office of Naval Research. He also has the ear of U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), having served as Hastert's point person for technology appropriations. He's also worked in tech commercialization since the mid-'90s.

Thornton wants to do more than simply dole out grants to worthy companies. He wants to work with federal agencies, understand their technology requirements and find Illinois companies that have what it takes to meet the government's needs. It's the simple formula that made California the land of technology millionaires. As Bill Gates Sr. said when he was here, the biggest venture capitalist is Uncle Sam. Tom Thornton is going to make it work for Illinois. He's well-positioned to do it. He deserves our support.

"One of the earliest adopters of technology, period, is government," Thornton says. "They take big technology risks. They plough a lot of money into technology development. They have an excellent bias to partner with small companies.

"If Navy says, 'I need a laser that can clad and repair parts,' we're going to find that laser and source it."

Thornton sees three benefits for Illinois startups. They'll get a really big initial customer, technology-development capital and a lot of hands-on know-how. It makes sense.

The Illinois Technology Development Alliance emerged from a restructuring of the Illinois Coalition and an effort by coalition Chairman Sam Skinner to focus the coalition on bringing large scale federal infrastructure investments into Illinois.

There are three federal mega projects on the horizon that tally almost $10 billion in estimated federal investment. They're the Rare Isotope Accelerator project worth $1 billion. The $1 billion FutureGen project to develop the first zero-emissions, coal-based power plant. Then there's the reconstruction of Fermi Lab to create the International Linear Collider for $8 billion, perhaps the largest science investment other than the moon launches, Thornton says.

With last week's announcement, the Illinois Coalition can focus on advocacy and infrastructure. They can chase those mega projects, while Tom Thornton and the Illinois Technology Development Alliance focus on tech commercialization.

The only unanswered question, who will lead the Illinois Coalition?

Fieldglass raises $11 million

Chicago-based Fieldglass landed $11 million in funding last week. The round was led by Grotech Capital Group. Previous investors, BlueStream Ventures, StarVest Partner and HLM Venture Partners also re-upped in this round. The money will be used to expand the company's marketing and sales capabilities and for product enhancements.

"Fieldglass is one of Chicago's strongest tech success stories," says David Weinstein, president of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center. The software company navigated the downturn and emerged with a company that is providing a meaningful software solution to Fortune 1000 companies. It's adding staff and increasing Chicago's prestige.

Bits & bytes

Vernon Hills-based CDW is celebrating. CEO John Edwardson's firm made the Fortune magazine list of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" for the seventh year in a row. CDW ranks 14th. It's the sixth time the company placed among the top 15. ... Harold Evans, the English author who chronicled American innovation in his recent book They Made America, From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators, speaks today at the University of Chicago's Gleacher Center. U. of C. entrepreneurship professor Ellen Rudnick notes there's considerable Midwest innovation on Evans' agenda.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.



 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners