City's tech sector may soon be singing new tune

May 2, 2005


What's the name of that old Phil Collins song? "In the air tonight." It's not spring fever. It's not the Bulls in the playoffs or the Sox record start. Something is happening to Chicago tech. Something is in the air.

Did you notice Archipelago? The electronic exchange is being acquired by the New York Stock Exchange. A 2003 winner of the Chicago Innovation Award is poised to reinvent the venerable NYSE.

"Hey, hey," as the late Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse used to chant. Chicago just hit one out of the park.

There's more. The local establishment is shifting. The Illinois Senate approved the $200 million Illinois Opportunity Fund by a 49-6 margin. If the bill passes the House and Gov. Blagojevich signs it, venture capital will go to stimulate local tech-based businesses.

Something organic is occurring. It encompasses the private sector, government, universities, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Each group seems to be working together as if choreographed to music.

Blagojevich visits D.C.

Consider Blagojevich's trip to Washington on Wednesday. Flanked by Jim Thompson, former Republican governor, and Bill Daley, Midwest chairman of JP MorganChase, Blagojevich met U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman. His purpose: to sell Illinois as the site for the $1 billion Rare Isotope Accelerator.

At stake: 16,000 construction jobs plus the downstream opportunity to transform scientific exploration into commercial businesses. Those businesses could be fueled by the Illinois Opportunity fund, and provide opportunity for unemployed manufacturing workers whose jobs move offshore.

"The governor told Secretary Bodman he could save $100 million placing RIA at Argonne National Labs where there's existing infrastructure," says Jack Lavin, director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Bodman visits Argonne on Friday for the dedication of the $72 million state-of-the-art Center for Nanoscale Materials, and more conversation.

The Chicago tech chorus grew larger last week. Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago President Michael Moskow convened a technology growth conference Tuesday, and played host to 80 local advocates seeking to hasten tech commercialization.

They want to build on Blagojevich's $1 million investment bringing the BIO 2006 conference to Chicago next April.

Then there's Cleveland-based, Forest City Enterprises creating a biotech and nanotech innovation campus worth $155 million at the Pfizer campus in Skokie.

Now Moskow, former head of the Economic Club of Chicago, is offering his facilities, staff, ideas and his bank's good name to host events on tech growth. Something different is in the air.

Add Vince White-Petteruti, executive director at the Commercial Club of Chicago (which represents the city's business elite), and you start to wonder. Is a new Chicago School of tech growth emerging?

"Chicago and the Midwest must continually reinvent themselves to sustain a high standard of living," says Moskow. "Though change is inevitable, growth is optional."

For the first time since the dot-com days, the powers that be in Chicago are talking tech growth. They're discussing ways and means. They're talking smart. They're talking about doing things in ways that uniquely fit Chicago.

There are no prescient, pony-tailed guys pounding the table saying, "Sears is going to die. The Internet revolution is coming." There's no generational conflict. This isn't young kids in black T-shirts up against Brooks Brothers.

The representatives are a melting pot just like Chicago. There are young tech entrepreneurs and worldly La Salle Street lawyers.

Chicago needs vibrant tech

Christopher Bloom, a law partner at Bell, Boyd & Lloyd observes, "We aren't converting our university research into technology jobs. In Illinois we lost 1 in 6 manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2003. Those jobs are not coming back."

His point: If Chicago is to prosper, we need a vibrant tech sector.

Bloom is one of 11 self-appointed task force members from the Economic Development Council, a local advocacy group singing Chicago's praises.

They used to play a different Phil Collins song when Chicago talked tech.

It was called, "Against All Odds."

On Chicago's tech scene that song's out of vogue.

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


 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners