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Olson’s Observations

Technology. Innovation. Science. VC. Media. :: by Eric Olson

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Technology Transfer in the Midwest: Looking Up

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Crain’s Chicago Business published a great article about technology transfer in the Midwest a few weeks back entitled “Seeking a breakthrough“.  The article specifically focused on tech transfer in Illinois and mentioned that, to date, Illinois has not done a great job of tech transfer.

Having come to Chicago from one of the most vibrant tech transfer centers in the world, Boston, MA (second only to Silicon Valley imho), I have seen what a great tech transfer system looks like and what it can do for the local economy.  Compared to Mass and the Valley we haven’t been doing a great job of commercializing technology from university labs (and from government labs) here in Illinois.

We all know the stories that still break our hearts.  Mosaic/Netscape, PayPal, YouTube, etc.  All of these companies were founded by Illini and yet ended up on the west coast.  The numbers also back up our lack of tech transfer.  From the Crain’s piece:

Between 1996 and 2006, Illinois universities spun off 124 companies and made $180 million from startups and technology they licensed directly to existing companies, according to the Deerfield-based Assn. of University Technology Managers. In that same period, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alone started 220 companies and made $344 million. Stanford University made $209 million between just 2002 and 2006.

Those numbers say it all but we can (and will) turn this around.

What can we do to turn this around? One of the first things we need to do is not so easy.  We need to build some high profile success stories here in Illinois.  I would argue that is already happening with FeedBurner (acquired by Google in 2007) and TicketsNow (acquired by Ticketmaster in 2008) along with a handful of other solid companies that have exited recently (disclosure: DFJ Portage was an investor in FeedBurner and TicketsNow).  That said, those companies did not come out of university labs.  However, the success stories should still show people both in and out of labs and investors that great companies can, and are, built right here.

As the Crain’s piece suggests, more high profile successes in the state will create more technology millionaires who will then help to mentor and seed the next generation and so on and so forth.  This is the same way Silicon Valley and Boston, MA were born and why the biggest thing we can do is build some very successful technology companies here in Illinois.

The infrastructure is also being put into place to make technology in Illinois a mainstay.  The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has built a fantastic research park and incubator (which I frequently visit and which will house TECH cocktail Champaign this week) as has the Illinois Institute of Technology (again, another place I frequent).  Both of these places along with other facilities are helping to change the tide of tech transfer here in the state.

What about the money though?  We all know that investors like to be close to their companies, which is why many Illinois startups have to leave the state to get up and running.  So we also need more investors here in the state.  The good news is that we are starting to see a growth in the investor pool here in Illinois.  From the Crain’s piece:

U of I created an independent fund, Illinois Ventures LLC, based in Chicago, with the help of private donors in 2002. Its goal is to provide early-stage money and logistical help to university-based startups.

Illinois Ventures has invested $20 million so far in 15 companies, among them Tetravitae Bioscience Inc., an alternative fuel company in Chicago, and has attracted another $300 million in outside investments, much of it coming from venture-capital funds on the coasts.

Ron Kirschner, a retired physician with an MBA from DePaul University, started Heartland Angels in Skokie in 2004. The group has grown from six to 22 investors and has put more than $3 million into six early-stage Midwestern companies. Four of those grew out of universities, among them Abiant Inc., a Deerfield company based on research from the University of Chicago and New York University. The startup uses imaging to help drug manufacturers improve products by mapping how they affect the brain.

I would also add the the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce created a fund a little while back called the Illinois Innovation Accelerator Fund (i2A for short) which is a $10mm vehicle dedicated to funding innovative technology companies here in Illinois.

Also, as most of you know, the firm I am an associate with, DFJ Portage Venture Partners, focuses only on the upper Midwest and has for quite some time.  We are able to bring the global resources of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) into the region while remaining locally focused, something we think will really help the region grow and help entrepreneurs create world class companies right here in Illinois (and throughout the Midwest).  As you can imagine we are very bullish on the Midwest as a technology center and we are excited to be part of the growing technology community here.

Successful technology transfer efforts will be a big part of what ultimately makes Illinois a leader in technology and tech transfer efforts are certainly getting exponentially better each and every day here in Illinois (for example Northwestern did a $700mm deal last year to sell part of its royalty rights to Pfizer’s pain drug Lyrica - a drug based on Northwestern research).

We are just now hitting the big upswing in the “hockey stick” here in Illinois and across the Midwest.  We are well on our way to rivaling the coasts when it comes to technology but we’ll no doubt do it our own special way making the Midwest a unique and exciting place to start and build technology companies.

Further discussion on this topic: Chicago Tech Report: “Understanding why Marc Andreesen left Illinois” by Blagica Bottigliero

iVentures10: Starting up in Illinois

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iVentures10As programs like Y Combinator and TechStars gained popularity I started to wonder why something along the lines of those programs didn’t exist here in Illinois. After all the modern web was pretty much born at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (mosaic/netscape, apache, etc.) and other notable web superstars like PayPal and YouTube have come from the minds of U of I grads. Well, I didn’t have to think about this idea for long…

Enter the iVentures10 program. iVentures10 is a program created by Illinois VENTURES initially as a “new kind of internship” for U of I computer science students. However, they recently announced a partnership with Mozilla along with their intention to take applications from around the world.

I think this is a fantastic thing for tech entrepreneurs based here in Illinois and a great way to get others that aren’t based here to spend a summer here in Illinois building their companies. Hopefully we can all show them such a good time they won’t want to leave! Keeping our tech talent here in the state is crucial to Illinois becoming the tech center it deserves to be and this program will clearly help with that effort.

You can learn more about the iVentures10 program on their site and if you think you want to submit an application make sure to get it together soon. The final day to submit applications is May 15th.

Side note: You can also learn more about the iVentures10 program at the next TECH cocktail mixer on May 29th. The team will be at the event along with some of the folks who have been accepted into the program.

Written by Eric Olson

May 1st, 2008 at 10:21 am

Posted in Business, Chicago, Technology, VC

TECH cocktail takes home the 2008 ITA CityLIGHTS Award

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ITA CityLIGHTS AwardWow. Twelve hours later I still don’t really know what to say. For people who know me well they know that says something (yeah, I talk a lot).

Frank and and I were nominated for the Illinois I.T. Association CityLIGHTS award along with some truly incredible people last night (my friend Brad Spirrison and super angel Bob Geras among them) who all deserved the award as much if not more than we did. Winning this award is a huge honor and incredibly humbling. I can’t stress that enough. I was simply stunned we took it home.

As I said in my short speech last night TECH cocktail has really been a story of community. Frank and I look at ourselves as facilitators but the tech community here in Chicago is where the magic is and always was. We just brought it into the light.

Another key point to note is that the tech community here will grow much faster if we all work together. Every chance we get we help other events, startups and people because we need an ecosystem. Other organizations, the ITA being one of them, feel the same way and always try to help others. Bottom line: we need to work together. TECH cocktail certainly can’t do it alone (nor has it - we’ve had a lot of help in the last two years) and it will be much more powerful as part of a larger whole.

I am excited for the future of Illinois technology and for the Midwest overall. I think we’re heading into a new age where we can become the technology center we deserve to be. Do we want to be Silicon Valley? No, I don’t think we do. We want to solve real problems with solid technologies in order to create real revenues and long term sustainable value. This isn’t to say that Silicon Valley doesn’t do that as well but I do think that we tend to escape some of the irrational exuberance that is prevalent in the Valley and that should be looked at as a strength not a weakness.

Here’s to the future. Onward!

Written by Eric Olson

April 4th, 2008 at 10:16 am

My Visit to skinnyCorp (threadless.com)

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skinnyCorpHarper Reed, the CTO of skinnyCorp, was nice enough to invite Frank and I down for a visit to skinnyCorp HQ last week. I had been dying to check out their offices as I was sure they would be pretty unique (plus I like the guys and their products) but I had no idea of the wonders that were in store for us (it was Willy Wonka style except with t-shirts instead of candy).

skinnyCorp is definitely one of the most interesting companies in Chicago today. Their tag line is “skinnyCorp creates communities” and that they do.

The most famous of their communities is threadless. Threadless is a community based t-shirt site. Designers (and even non-designers) can submit t-shirt designs to the site which are then put up to a vote. Once the community votes the scores are tallied and the best shirts are produced for sale at the threadless site. The winning designers also get paid if their shirts are selected.

Being a t-shirt junky I was naturally drawn to threadless but the other skinnyCorp communities like ExtraTasty (cocktail recipes) and I Park Like An Idiot are also a lot of fun.

Needless to say the office visit was a blast and Frank and I are now entering into the ThreadLe Manss 48 Heures race in May. It is a 48 hour pinewood derby run off. What could be more fun than that? Have I told you how fun these guys are? If you can’t participate but want to watch the action you can do it live on May 16 and 17 via threadless.com.

For more skinnyCorp fun times and a tour of their facilities check out the segment from SomewhatFrank TV below.

Written by Eric Olson

March 4th, 2008 at 9:53 am

Posted in Chicago, Technology, Web

2008 Tour of California: Check out the Adobe Tour Tracker

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Amgen Tour of CaliforniaI am not sure how many of you out there are cycling fans but I am one. A big one in fact. Yeah, I know there have been a lot of doping issues lately but the sport, in my eyes, is still beautiful and also a display of pure suffering and perseverance. The sport is also cleaning itself up aggressively but that’s the focus of a whole other post.

Anyhow, the Amgen Tour of California is going on right now and it is a great race. Yesterday Tom Boonen, a sprinter with team QuickStep, took the win and today there was a hard fought battle between Gesink (Rabobank) and Leipheimer (Astana) for the stage win. Gesink prevailed but Leipheimer got the 7 seconds he needed to snag the gold leaders jersey for the first time in this tour (Nice work Levi! Note: Leipheimer won last years Tour of California.).

If there is any race that newbies should watch to get a feel for the sport it would probably be the Tour of California because it is so accessible. You can catch it on cable via Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network) but what makes this Tour truly accessible is the fact that they broadcast each stage live on the web.

The Tour of California’s Adobe Tour Tracker is freakin’ awesome in terms of live streaming sports coverage. Not only do you get the live video/commentary you also get a ton of metrics (speed, distance to go, GPS based overlays of the riders on a Google map, etc.).

They launched the Tour Tracker last year but they had a lot of problems with it. This year everything seems to be ironed out though and I am loving it.

If you are new to cycling and want to check out a race check out the Tour of California on their live Tour Tracker. It is easy to access and free so you have no excuse. I bet you’ll be hooked once you start picking up on all of the strategy and witness the drama that is bike racing (don’t say I didn’t warn you). And, hey, if you’re not hooked after watching for a while at least you can say you checked out a nice application of a handful of technologies.

(If you’re not new to cycling you should still check out Tour Tracker. It’s the best way to watch a race in my opinion. When will the Tour de France (or any of the grand tours) get something like this?)

Written by Eric Olson

February 20th, 2008 at 7:53 pm

Posted in Sports, Technology

DEMO Conference Update: LiquidTalk and Good2Gether

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Unfortunately I was unable to make the DEMO conference this week due to scheduling issues which is a bummer but I will be covering some of the companies I find interesting right here anyhow (with the aid of Frank Gruber who is on the scene). Without further adieu here is the first DEMO update:

LiquidTalk

I was very excited when I first heard that LiquidTalk was going to be at DEMO this year. LiquidTalk is a Chicago based company (yeah, I may be a biased because of that) that has come up with some great enterprise technology that brings new media to the corporation.

LiquidTalk’s core technology allows corporations with large distributed sales forces to easily distribute corporate knowledge to these remote individuals via podcasts. This timely and easy to consume media helps sales professionals stay up to date while they wouldn’t normally be able to be productive (i.e. driving between appointments, on a flight, etc.) which ultimately will help them close more sales.

At DEMO tomorrow LiquidTalk will show off their new BlackBerry based technology for the first time. I have no doubt it’ll be a pretty sweet demo as their prior demo of their iPod technology at TECH cocktail a while back was a lot of fun.

From all of us in Chicago - good luck guys. Make us proud!

Good2Gether

As you guys know I am a sucker for a good social venture (aren’t all social ventures good… clearly I should use a thesaurus more often) and this looks like one.

The idea behind Good2Gether is to bring together not-for-profit organizations, volunteers, the media and large corporations with what it calls a “philanthropic social networking service.”

The issues Good2Gether addresses are:

Corporations are always looking for ways to make themselves look good in the eyes of the world via supporting not-for-profits but they often have a hard time finding them (and of course the not-for-profits can use the support).

Media companies have a lot of eyeballs and not-for-profit websites do not. Media companies are also looking for good stories which they could potentially get from the not-for-profits.

Not-for-profits are always looking for volunteers and but, due to in part to poor websites, volunteers who want to help are often left out in the cold (I can say this has happened many times to me. I want to volunteer my time but find it very hard to do so.)

Good2Gether aims to alleviate all of these issues through their product which will bring together all of the groups that play in the not-for-profit space and help them find ways to interact.

Good2Gether has already landed a handful of the top media outlets in the country along with a number of large not-for-profits and corporations so it seems they are off to a great start. I am all for this application and I really hope they are able to keep up the momentum.

Just imagine seeing a news article about a natural disaster with a Good2Gether box listing opportunities for the public to help right next to it. You click an opportunity and you are brought to a page that allows you to easily apply to volunteer. Large corporations will also find it easy to donate and send employees to help and the media can even get a story out of all the people brought together via the web to help out in a disaster. Not bad at all.

Written by Eric Olson

January 28th, 2008 at 7:38 pm

Midwest Venture Summit 2008: Business Plan Submission Underway

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I received a note from the IVCA today about the Midwest Venture Summit that is coming up and I wanted to make sure I got the info out to all of you.

The Midwest Venture Summit is a great way for entrepreneurs of Midwest based early stage* and series A+** companies looking for funding to get in front of the Midwest’s top VCs. In fact, you can get in front of over 100 of them by presenting at the summit. Not too shabby.

The Midwest, as defined by the IVCA, includes these states: IA, IL, IN, KY, MI, MN, MO, NB, ND, OH, Western PA, SD, WI. These are the areas from which the VCs and various service providers will be coming from and from which your company needs to be from in order to participate in the summit.

I would suggest submitting your business plan if you are looking for funding in the Midwest. Sure, it costs $175 but you will get far more value than that if you are selected to present.

Even if you do not end up raising any money via your presentation at the summit (although companies that presented at the past years summit have raised $222mm to date so chances are pretty good that you may land a deal) you will get great feedback from the top business and technology minds in the Midwest that will help to shape your business going forward.

The deadline for submitting plans to the Midwest Venture Summit is January 31, 2008 so make sure to submit your plan sooner rather than later.

Again, this is a great opportunity for Midwest startups and VCs alike. Events like this one will help to put the Midwest on the map as the technology hub that it is.

Disclaimer/clarification: I do not receive any money from promoting this event. I just wanted to help get the word out.

MVS Details:

Dates: March 17th & 18th, 2008

City: Chicago, IL

Venues:

Day 1 will be located at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center, 450 North Cityfront Plaza Drive, Chicago

Day 2 will be located at the Sheraton Hotel & Towers, 301 East North Water Street, Chicago

—————-

IVCA Company Stage Definitions:

* Early stage companies typically have:

  • product or service in development
  • key management in place
  • have done initial marketing or pre-sales
  • friends & family money invested in the company

**Series A+ companies typically have:

  • already received institutional/angel money
  • are seeking investments to expand working capital or marketing and sales capabilities

Written by Eric Olson

January 24th, 2008 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Business, Chicago, Technology, VC