Innovation Awards honor risk-takers

October 17, 2005


Chicago honors innovation Tuesday night at the Goodman Theatre. More than 400 invited guests will fill the theater to honor the 10 recipients of the only locally focused innovation award in the Chicago area, and to hear keynoter Casey Cowell, founder of U.S. Robotics, a true Chicago tech success story. Cowell receives the Visionary Award for his accomplishments.

The scene is the fourth annual presentation of the Chicago Innovation Awards, co-founded by the Chicago Sun-Times and Kuczmarski & Associates, the new-product consulting firm. While it's not the Web 2.0 conference held recently in Silicon Valley, the Chicago Innovation Awards, presented by Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., is Chicago born and bred, and we have a right to be proud of a program that honors local innovation.

Talk to any senior executive these days. They'll tell you growth is their biggest challenge. How do you grow the top line? That's the issue. Since March 2000, senior execs have cost-cut themselves to efficiency, but future business success requires growth. That means innovation.

Sure, you can grow through acquisitions and financial engineering. But seasoned veterans know more mergers fail than succeed. Even Cowell learned that through his merger of U.S. Robotics with 3Com in an $8 billion deal that proved unsuccessful.

The best way to grow your business is to innovate. There's just one problem. Innovation is tough, hard work, and many senior executives don't want to take the risk. The great ones do, and that's why they're great.

When I take my seat Tuesday night at the Goodman, I'm going to be all ears. I want to learn from Cowell and the 10 Chicago innovators being honored.

Just one more thing about Cowell and innovation. Sure, Cowell's a big success. But he worked hard for it. He sold modems out of the trunk of his car, and financed his company's travel expenses on an overdrawn credit card long before the Internet was a glimmer in anyone's eye.

Things worked out for Cowell, and I'm glad they did. Most of us don't take the risks. As a kid growing up in Chicago, I thought the big established companies were the safest bets.

I once tried to dissuade John McCartney, who became the No. 2 exec at U.S. Robotics, from joining the company.

"Join an established firm," I told McCartney, who had recently left a failed specialty steel start-up. "Play it safe."

McCartney went to U.S. Robotics anyway. The rest is history. Just last week, McCartney was on a road show launching yet another start-up.

Maybe it was my Midwestern conservatism. Maybe it was lack of knowledge. Today if someone asks me about joining a start-up, I'm more positive.

But I don't blindly say, "Go for it." I'm circumspect. I'm thoughtful. Entrepreneurship isn't for everyone. I usually tell the aspiring innovator to seek out others who have done it before. Listen to them. Hear their stories. Then decide.

I guess that's the best reason for showing up at Tuesday night's Chicago Innovation Awards.

Roberts Wednesday

The Executives' Club of Chicago kicks off the first of four high-tech events Wednesday at the Chicago Hilton and Towers when Comcast CEO Brian Roberts takes the podium. Roberts will describe broadband's impact on entertainment and communications.

After lunch, the discussion continues with a top-flight panel on aligning IT in a constantly changing business environment. On tap are: Allstate CIO Cathy Brune; Chicago Mercantile Exchange CIO James Krause; Health Care Services Corp. CIO Patrick Moroney; Archer Daniels Midland group VP IT Raymond Preiksaitis, and Bain Midwest IT Practice head Rudy Puryear.

Bits & Bytes

Gov. Blagojevich launched a new homeland security innovation and entrepreneurship center at Northwestern with a $350,000 grant....Society for Information Management President John Moon, CIO of Baxter, welcomes Marquette University Prof. Kate Kaiser for lunch Wednesday at Spiaggia. Kaiser talks about the future IT workforce....Getty Images chief marketing officer Jack Sansolo talks about selling images online at Thursday's Business Marketing Association lunch at the Chicago Athletic Association. ... India is getting competition for outsourcing from Canada. Canadian economic development exec Eric Hochstein touts Canada and "near shoring" Friday at the Mid-America Club. What's near shoring? That's Canada's way of saying they're low cost, high quality and close by.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.



 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners