Are you jealous? This is the view from my window at TechNexus in downtown Chicago. If you look closely, you can see the lake at the end of this spectacular urban canyon.
“Innovation is a means, not an end,” reads the plasma screen near my desk. I am lucky to be camping out this week at TechNexus, a tech entrepreneurship incubator with a difference.
Located in the Civic Opera Building in the Chicago Loop, this bright, cheery, expansive space is full of people tapping on keyboards and talking into cell phones. Just like any other incubator. And they are mostly trying to start up businesses of their own. Just like any other incubator.
What is different about TechNexus is its strategy. The idea is to start with problems, real business problems being experienced by real companies in the real world. Then find innovations that solve those problems for big companies, thus building firm foundations on which new companies can be built.
We really don’t need another app to tell us where the nearest cupcake or macaroon can be bought, right? Not really. Unfortunately, the creation of a clever app is sometimes as far as it goes in the young-entrepreneur-racing-to-riches sweepstakes. But there are plenty of other problems that can be solved within established businesses, who may need help adapting to the new environment. Working with those organizations can infuse revenue into a startup quickly–and working directly with the need can lead to quicker, better solution.
So, TechNexus, which calls itself a “venture collaborative,” will be working with big companies to learn what problems they see, then will put the companies in touch with TechNexus’ network of incubators/startups around the country to see if a solution can be found or made. They will take this approach, as opposed to going to those same companies with an array of technologies created in a closet, hoping someone there will have the imagination to figure out how one of those innovations might fit within an existing framework of practices and needs.
Chicago has a decent claim to fame as a tech town, though most people don’t realize it. I actually did a study for the City of Chicago several years back on this very topic. With so many major universities in the area, most of them with special claims to fame in tech, Chicago is no backwater when it comes to talent. Even more important, perhaps, some of the biggest companies in the world are headquartered here–or nearby. So this strategy not only makes more sense generally, it makes more sense for Chicago.
I am hoping to work with these folks and their terrific networks, including the Illinois Technology Association, on the whole question of women and technology, next year when I am on sabbatical. This topic has become rather tired in recent years, with all kinds of money being thrown at girls and STEM education, for instance. But there is more to it than early education blocks, I am sure. The topic needs a fresh look. It will be cool to try and take a different approach.
In the meantime, I am just enjoying being here, hanging out among the happening.
“Where start-ups go to grow up.” Another TechNexus slogan that seems well-suited to the times. Instead of chasing more toys, let’s take a sensible path toward solving real problems.