What Chicago Knows about Innovation

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The director of the 10-year-old Chicago Innovation Awards shares key steps other cities can take to fuel economic growth

Federal policymakers have put innovation squarely at the center of strategies for economic recovery. Knowing that innovation is vital and making it happen are two very different things. One approach we have found highly effective in Chicago is to make innovation a local matter.

Over the course of the past 10 years, we in Chicago have learned that a successful strategy to stimulate local innovation is also one of the most straightforward: celebrate our homegrown entrepreneurs. We do that with the annual Chicago Innovation Awards. “People who come to a celebration of innovation self-select, and conversations take place that lead to more creative action,” says Philip Kotler, marketing professor at Chicago’s Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

We’ve seen first-hand how this simple approach can build interest among venture capitalists, stimulating regional development. Over 200 venture capitalists from all over the country attended last year’s inaugural pitch day for new Chicago business incubator Excelerate Labs. Ten local startups went through an intensive 13-week mentorship program and then presented to a room full of potential backers. Eight of the 10 startups have raised a combined $7.2 million in venture funding since the pitch day.

This generates new jobs for the local economy. We took a sample of 27 companies that have won Chicago Innovation Awards and found that they have added more than 10,000 jobs. In just under three years, Groupon, a 2009 winner, has grown from a handful of employees to over 7,000 in Chicago and across the globe. GrubHub, another native, is planning to double its staff from 100 to 200 employees by the end of this year. Increasingly, the best and brightest students at Chicago’s universities are taking note and considering local opportunities, rather than heading west to Silicon Valley.

Innovation Awards Sprout in Midwest

The Chicago model has been adopted by the newly established Indiana Innovation Awards. Programs to celebrate innovation are now taking place in Michigan with its Accelerate Michigan innovation competition. Ohio now boasts separate innovation-award competitions in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.

We’ve learned that celebrating innovation boils down to four key things:

Make it a civic gesture. Avoid the temptation to turn this into a fundraising opportunity. Do it out of love and respect for the city or region. Companies such as Wrigley, Comcast  (CMCSA), Google (GOOG), and other Chicago sponsors ensure that every event and activity throughout the year is free of charge to all involved. If there is a fundraising component, make it serve something like the creation of scholarships. Let donors feel they are advancing the cause.

Build an innovation community. By connecting with business groups, government agencies, large corporations, individual entrepreneurs, universities, and venture capitalists, we’ve brought many people into our tent. We’ve found that when everyone stands to gain, all are eager to pitch in. The local innovation community is now sprouting niche communities such as BuiltInChicago.org, a social network for Chicago’s burgeoning digital tech community. This online community has accumulated 3,700 members in its first nine months.

Make it a year-round process. A one-night gala or awards dinner creates a mere spark of excitement. The blaze comes from a year-round series of events, providing multiple forums for people to connect. One way we do this is through a reception for all nominees—not just the winners—at Chicago’s House of Blues three months before our awards ceremony. It helps Chicago’s community of innovators get to know each other, share ideas, and develop working partnerships. One month after the winners are announced, we invite them to ring the opening Nasdaq bell in New York.

Celebration matters only if others know about it. We have teamed up with virtually every business organization in the Chicago region to alert their members about the opportunity to participate in the awards and to spread word of the results. We also work with media partners. It’s important for organizations to take advantage of every recognition opportunity. We provide each year’s winners with public relations and media guidance, too.

In this time of economic uncertainty, celebrating innovation renews confidence and reminds us that calling attention to success can be a good business strategy.

Luke Tanen is Director of the Chicago Innovation Awards, which annually honor the most innovative new products and services in the Chicago region. Tanen’s upcoming book, Innovating Chicago-Style: How Local Innovators are Building the National Economy, will be published in November.

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