Chicago’s Tech Scene: Accelerating Dreams and Incubating Innovation


Greatness is most often made, not born, so it’s imperative that promising tech innovators have the opportunity make their dreams tangible realities. Inventors and entrepreneurs are at somewhat of a greater advantage than those of the past due to crowdfunding websites, but those platforms only assist in one aspect of realizing a dream – financial investment. There is so much more that effects one’s success such as networking opportunities, business partnerships, ample work space, creative and technical assistance, and support from those who share a vision.

Over the last few years, there has been a good deal of attention drawn to Chicago’s tech scene: the number of successful start-ups, up-and-coming tech accelerators and incubators, and the benefits of substantial innovation hubs working together. Start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures are thriving in The Second City, but what does that mean for you and your creative mind, bursting with ideas?

First of all, an important distinction must be made between “accelerators” and “incubators,” and your goals should inform which avenue to pursue. Accelerators are generally short term engagements of about three months culminating in a type of ‘graduation’ for the start-ups; the accelerator model will usually take single digit portions of equity in the developed ideas of participants in exchange for small amounts of capital and mentorship. Conversely, an incubator will most often bring an external team to manage an internally developed idea for a significant amount of time and greater percentage of equity. However, these are broad generalizations as each organization behaves a little differently.

There are almost an overwhelming number of these organizations in Chicago, but that is excellent news for the city’s entrepreneurs as there seems to be something for everyone. Many incubators and accelerators have a specific industrial focus like Wavetable on digital businesses, Elmspring on real estate technology, and Healthbox on healthcare, while others, like TechNexus, have more of a general tech focus with separate paths for corporate acceleration versus start-up cultivation. Techstars is currently one of the most competitive accelerator programs in the nation with thousands of applicants vying for a handful of spots at multiple locations for programs throughout the year; the Chicago program is scheduled for the end of June through September 2016. Although they are focused on technology companies, there are only a few ventures which they do not fund, specifically biotech companies, restaurants, consultancies, or other local service oriented endeavors.

Institutions of higher education are also hotspots for innovation which is why three major universities in the Chicago areas have established their own such programs. Northwestern University has a rich entrepreneurial spirit and a strong network with various initiatives such as EPIC, NUVC, NSH and The Farley Center; however, their efforts are insular and concentrated on their current student population. In 1996, the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business founded the New Venture Challenge; it went global in 2008 and is currently the #1 university accelerator in the nation. Completely open to all current students, university alumni and non-affiliated individuals are also able to apply as long at least one current UChicago student is an integral team member (someone with a minimum of 10% equity stake). University Technology Park at the Illinois Institute of Technology is a hub for tech innovation founded in 2005. Their 300,000 square feet of lab and office space is located on the South Side and had provided space and support for over 60 start-ups, raising over $315 million for various enterprises including biomedical and life sciences, medical diagnostics and devices, IT, food safety, and clean/green energy technologies.

So, if you haven’t found your ultimate success but know that your idea is influential and groundbreaking, perhaps all you need is to meet the right team, secure proper funding, or be mentored by a master. These folks are here to help.