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Kellogg alumnus Luke Tanen ’14 and Professor Tom Kuczmarski work to change how innovation happens through the Innovators Connection.

Luke Tanen '14 and Professor Tom Kuczmarski

The matchmakers

A professor and a grad match Chicago startups with world-class companies

By Brandon Campbell

11/3/2014 - The Kellogg-minted team that honors Chicago innovators is building a new way to support the startup community — by connecting established business leaders’ problems to local startups that might have the solution.

“Startups have a hard time getting the ear of big companies. They may not have a lot of credibility, or know who to talk to,” says Luke Tanen ’14. “It makes sense to bridge these two worlds. You can think of what we’ve created as a matching program.”

The story of the Innovators Connection starts back in 2010.

While researching job postings, then-Kellogg student Luke Tanen came across an opening for a director’s job at the Chicago Innovation Awards, which showcases the region’s most imaginative new ventures. He noticed a somewhat familiar name: Tom Kuczmarski.

“This name Kuczmarski appeared in both places, the Chicago Innovation Awards and over at Kellogg,” Tanen says. “So, I just sent him a note one day, saying I think what he’s doing is really cool and that I’d love to interview for the position.”

Kuczmarski, one of the co-founders of the awards and a senior lecturer at Kellogg's Center for Research on Technology & Innovation, met with Tanen. Kuczmarski soon realized that Tanen, who hails from New York, was passionate about working within Chicago’s startup business community.

“Luke was one of many great candidates who popped up, and he's the one we hired,” says Kuczmarski, who runs an innovation consultancy and is considered one of the city’s foremost experts. “He’s a powerhouse. I just love working with him.”

A collaboration was born. And since moving up to executive director in 2012, Tanen has worked with Kuczmarski to expand the organization into new territories. Their latest is the Innovators Connection, which helps startups connect their services to big-name companies.

Easing the pain

To do that, the Innovators Connection taps into the Innovation Awards’ nomination database of more than a thousand local and national companies. The goal is to find large businesses that are looking for answers to specific problems and match them with Chicago startups that may have the answers.

“We met with Exelon, and they told us ... about their need areas and pain points, and then we put together a portfolio of about 35 startups that were relevant to those needs,” Tanen says. “And now the Exelon team is meeting with a number of these startups and really talking about next steps.”

Kuczmarski points out that Chicago startups are coming up with creative products and services beyond the next killer smartphone app.

“The real key is to not view innovation as digital technology, but rather understanding that innovation impacts manufacturing, service organizations, health care, education, performing arts — the whole gamut,” Kuczmarski says.

Some examples include previous Chicago Innovation Awards winners like Protein Bar, a healthy fast-casual restaurant; Life Spine Inc., and its spinal pathology products; and The Rabine Group’s PrimeComposite flooring system.

Made (and staying) in Chicago

The idea behind the Connection is to keep these growing companies from leaving Chicago before they can become successful contributors to their hometown’s economy.

“Our hope is that these companies will want to stay here, grow here, hire people here. As opposed to startups here in Chicago thinking, ‘Maybe I should go out to Silicon Valley, or maybe I should go somewhere else.’ We don’t want them thinking that,” Tanen says.

The program, which had its first anniversary at the end of July, was able to make more than 500 matches during its inaugural year, says Bryan Brochu NU’10, director of the Innovators Connection. Those matches, he says, have led to about 100 successful connections.

“The companies are actively meeting to see if there are more opportunities to do some sort of business,” Brochu says. “It’s fantastic. Going into this, we didn’t quite know how strong the need was, but just by having so many companies involved validates that there is a need for this.”

As it enters its second year, the Innovator’s Connection will continue to recruit other large corporations and start-ups into the program, as well as beef up its presence on higher-ed campuses like Kellogg, Brochu says.

One recent example is Photonic Engines, a Northwestern startup developing new transfer-rate technology. The Connection introduced Photonic Engines in July to a number of companies, including Cisco and Molex, an electronics manufacturer based in the Chicago suburb of Lisle.

“Further increasing that relationship to help identify startups and technologies at Northwestern is the next step,” Brochu says.