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Jonathan Pettersson is the co-founder of Nansen, based in Chicago. Photo: Pontus Höök
Jonathan Pettersson is the co-founder of Nansen, based in Chicago. Photo: Pontus Höök

Lifestyle

Startups put the ‘go’ in Chicago

Chicago is ready to take on San Francisco, New York, and the other economic powers. Right now, young entrepreneurs are flocking to the Windy City.

The office landscape of 1871, Chicago’s largest tech incubator, looks more like a giant youth center with its open shared spaces, playful artwork, and colorful lighting. What gives it away is the slightly older crowd, the beards, and the occasional suits. The premises, in Chicago’s downtown Merchandise Mart, are named for the year in which the Great Chicago Fire destroyed a large part of the city, leading to a massive influx of engineers, architects, and inventors who helped to shape not just a new city but the modern world.

1871 is a melting pot for startups in downtown Chicago. Photo: Pontus Höök

The best thing about 1871 is the opportunity to make contacts and gain expertise, says Aaqib Usman, 23, an 1871 member. “The workshops are what really makes it worth being here,” he says, pointing to a wall-sized blackboard full of names, dates, and times. Up there are the names of professionals from different industries in Chicago – lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists – who take turns spurring the new start-up boom by volunteering their time and expertise in one-on-one meetings with the young and hopeful.

‘While the tech ­industry has meant a boost in recent years for Chicago, the city is still behind ­national average in many areas’

“We invite professionals to come here and our members register online on a first-come, first-served basis for whoever they want to meet,” says Melissa Wooten, 22, Communications Director at 1871. “They can present ideas or just ask questions. The meetings are an incredible educational resource and free to our members.”

Some draw a straight line between Chicago’s newly won status as a start-up hub and 1871’s success in fostering the entrepreneurial spirit. The monthly membership fee is $450 for a reserved seat or $300 for access to the shared working space. 

“We’re also one of only nine members of the Google for Entrepreneurs North American Tech Hub Network, so our members get access to exclusive opportunities like pitching in front of major investors at Google’s Demo Days,” Wooten says.

Chicago is the third biggest city in the US after New York and Los Angeles. Photo: Pontus Höök

Chicago hasn’t always been considered an entrepreneurial hotspot. In fact, the offices of 1871 opened up only three years ago. Before that, the start-ups that did manage to find capital to expand were scattered all over the city.

While the tech industry has meant a boost in recent years for Chicago, with success stories such as food-ordering service GrubHub and world-famous mass-discount finder Groupon, the city is still behind national averages in many areas. The recovery from the recession has taken longer than elsewhere for no apparent reason. The seemingly popular mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former White House Chief of Staff and an outspoken backer of 1871, even had to go into a runoff to stay in office earlier this year – a clear sign of dissatisfaction.

“What I’ve heard during my few years here is that people traditionally have low faith in their elected officials,” says Pettersson, who came to Chicago to establish Nansen’s North American office. Nansen is one of several Nordic companies that in recent years has opened up shops here because of the many business advantages such as lower rents, the very active local office of the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce, and an overall hunger for new businesses.

Photo. Pontus Höök

“When we came here in 2010 during the recession, we noticed people were a little down,” he says. “They almost apologized for what the US had done to the world economy. But we came in with great confidence after our successful first two years in Sweden. I think we got off to a better start here because of the low self-esteem. People were open to new ideas and new faces.”

Just a few months ago, Nansen moved with its now some 40 employees into a renovated industrial complex in Chicago’s old meatpacking district.

Pettersson says that although Chicago isn’t San Francisco, there is a huge buzz around the tech start-up scene right now.

“There are meet-ups all the time,” he says, referring to the many networking opportunities. “I think people here enjoy the nicer business climate compared to the coasts where you need sharper elbows, so to speak.”

Tiana Epps-Johnson, founder and Executive Director of the Center for Technology and Civic Life. Photo: Pontus HöökIn terms of venture capital spent on new businesses, San Francisco, San Jose, New York, Boston, and a few other cities are still way ahead of Chicago. Here it’s less about the big-money ventures such as Snapchat or Oculus and more about business-to-business solutions – as Wooten puts it, “companies creating real value that sometimes fly under the radar”.

Member Aaqib Usman is part of a company called Georama. Along with his boss Nihal Advani, 29, and colleague Herrman Taraporewalla, 24, he has made a platform for live-streamed guided tours, bringing interactive exploring to people who can’t travel.

“What has happened here since 1871 started is that universities, corporations, and venture capital have started to integrate,” Advani says.

It’s not even all for profit. Tiana Epps-Johnson runs the Center for Technology and Civic Life, which is focused on getting people to vote by assisting local agencies at the county level to better interact with citizens.

“We learned that a third of all counties in the US – 966 to be exact – didn’t have an election website with even the most basic information,” she says. “Basically, we work with the less-resourceful jurisdictions so that they can learn how to better communicate with the people.”

Chicago as a city and 1871 as an office space turned out to be a perfect match for her.

“We used to work out of Washington, DC, but that comes with a reputation. Folks are not super trustful of people coming in from DC to their communities with new ideas,” she says with a laugh, adding that Chicago also is “way kinder to the wallet.”

“Although we’re new here, a thing that struck us is how open people are to collaborating,” she says. “Folks have been really generous introducing us to many other organizations, and most of them turned out to be working out of this office.”

 

Text: Henrik Ek 

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