Chicago’s Tech Scene: A Study in Contradiction?

Sep 24 10

Chicago’s Tech Scene: A Study in Contradiction?

Paul Weinstein

Image by pdweinstein via Flickr

One of the things that I have yet to get a handle on is the technology scene in Chicago. How can the country’s third largest city, home to companies from Motorola to Threadless not have a thriving, engaging tech populous?  Why don’t tech people think of Chicago along the lines of a San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston or Austin?

It’s something I ponder once and awhile. Mostly I think we here in Chicago have an inferiority complex. Or maybe it has to do with that Midwestern work ethic, if we just work hard; the rewards and recognition will come on their own.

I mean besides Motorola and Threadless, I can think of a number of established tech companies such as Abbott Laboratories, Tellabs and NAVTEQ. Or trendy web companies such as Orbiz, 37signals, Groupon and Grub Hub. And that’s not including non-Chicago companies that have some sort of technical presence in the area, such as Google, BP or AT&T. Or the countless under-the-radar companies such as Orbit Media Studios.

Mix in top-tier schools in the region such as; Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Wisconsin at Madison as well as federally funded research institutions Argonne National Labs and Fermilab and well, I think you start to see my point.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who ponders why Chicago isn’t seen as a tech city.

Insight Labs is leading a discussion in connection with midVenturesLAUNCH called “Not Being Silicon Valley” in which they ask questions such as “If Chicago were the new center of the technology world, what would it look like?” “What assets and advantages could we leverage to make Chicago the dominant technology powerhouse?” “What changes must occur to make the Second City number one for tech startups?”

Naturally my own answer jumps off with my thought that Chicago isn’t seen as a tech-centric place to be, that there is no tech scene or as I commented, “I ‘knew’ going in that if I really wanted to make a career as a programmer I would end up working in Silicon Valley. Eventually I returned to Chicago (the Bay Area is damned expensive, even for a well-paid programmer) but even now I wonder if I’m missing on new opportunities by staying in Chicago.”

More to the point of answering the question at hand, what changes must occur? I say understanding that we already have healthy technology assets, that opportunities do exist and a change of outlook is needed “to do a better job of recruiting and mentoring” in building a vibrant tech community.

What do you think?