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Is Illinois really the unsung technology center of business?

Monday 9 March, 2009

I went to lunch for this event Illinois: The Unsung Technology Center of Business sponsored by the Economic Development Council.  Here’s Fred Hoch’s presentation:  22509_edc_industry_presentation_21 In addition, Illinois is #6 in patents issued, #16 in commercialization, & #24 in high growth jobs.  40 Fortune 500 companies headquartered here help.  1300 mid-sized companies make Chicago the largest center of mid-sized businesses.  For Tier 1 cities, technology defines their economies.  In Chicago, the economy defines its technologies.  His prescriptions are apt:

  • connect industries-Orbitz should talk to the Merc because they both work in high volume transaction businesses
  • collaborate-with the IITA
  • communicate-with the market
  • coerce-the government
  • capitalize-Chicago has 5 times the capital of Silicon Valley
  • collegiate-work more closely with local universities

This presentation put technology in Chicago in a different context which is entirely appropriate.  I won’t debate that everything Fred said is true.  However, my impression is that many of the criticisms of Chicago & Illinios’ technology community remain valid. Fred just kind of repackaged the positioning of our technolgy companies.

Part of the perception problem is in the comparison with Silicon Valley.  Everyone wants to emulate it, but no one can because it’s an ecosystem that started many years ago & will take just as long to be duplicated anyplace else, if ever.  There are relationships between schools & businesses which seem to be deeper than in most other places.  There is a mentality on risk & its financing that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere.  It’s a place with a business culture like no place else.  Should we continue to belabor the comparison or just let it go?  I don’t know.

While Chicago is a mecca for mid-sized firms, I’m not sure that it’s a mecca for mid-sized technology firms.  It seems as though very few exceed a few million $ in revenues.  When they do, they don’t continue to grow & prosper, as we’re led to believe they do out west, rather they’re sold & absorbed by out-of-state competitors.  Greenbriar & Russel was bought by Fujitsu.  SSA Global was bought by Infor.  I question whether a mid-level tier exists anywhere for technology firms-I suspect the same happens elsewhere, so you might see the same gap between emerging & established companies in other places too.  Maybe we’re no different than the rest in that regard.

Fred seems to be somewhat of an internationalist.  He has studied international business & has traveled the world, so he knows how  different business can be outside of North America.  But his frame of reference in the presentation is national rather than global.  When I asked him about how Chicago-area companies approach international markets, his response was “with too little focus.”  I am an advocate for Chicago & Illinois technology companies & want to support them, but many have far too insular & parochial views of the world that limits their opportunities drastically.  Chicago has many strengths that aren’t reported often enough in the general media, but we can do far better than we have by opening our eyes & reaching out to the rest of the world.

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