“The State of Innovation in Chicago” was an ambitious title for a Techweek panel, but the three speakers were more than qualified to handle the topic. Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871; Brenna Berman, Chief Information Officer for Mayor Emanuel’s Department of Innovation and Technology; and Craig Ulliott, CTO of Belly, spoke candidly about how Chicago’s startup community has grown, the successes it has experienced, and the challenges ahead. We’ve culled some of the panel’s highlights, which give you a snapshot of how some of the brightest minds in innovation view the city’s progress.
1871? More like Hotel California 
"You can check in any time but you can never leave,” Tullman joked, as he described how even when companies go sideways, the people don’t leave. “What they do is they attach themselves to better ideas. It’s organic, it’s amazing… It's very Darwinian.”
Chicago’s investment growth 
$1 billion was invested into Chicago startups last year, three times more than a year before. And 80 companies raised $1 million or more. The amount of available capital is growing in Chicago, particularly in the early funding rounds.
“Angels and seed guys and Series A investors are much more active now,” Tullman said. "That’s the kind of funding people need.”
Craig Ulliott, CTO of Belly; Iain Shovlin, chairman of Techweek; and Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871 (Left to right) discuss the state of innovation in Chicago.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a tech "cheerleader" 
“The mayor is a cheerleader and a champion and a partner,” Berman said. She added that her door is always for entrepreneurs in need if advice or assistance. And to further encourage investment into Chicago startups, Emanuel is planning a VC summit in October to bring Venture Capitalists from both coasts here to Chicago.
Talent, rather than a lack of money, is now Chicago's biggest issue
The first group of graduates from 1871 raised over $35 million. As stated earlier, $1 billion was invested into Chicago startups last year. Raising capital, while still challenging, is not Chicago's No. 1 concern. Attracting and keeping top tech talent is now the biggest issue facing many tech companies. To combat that, Tullman said 1871 is going to announce soon a partnership with college-run businesses that will give them a free year at 1871. The program will hopefully attract college talent and encourage them to stay in Chicago to build their companies.
A key to success? Try to tear apart your idea
Do what you can to destroy your business plan early in the process, Ulliott said. Find its weaknesses. What are the areas of the business where you struggle?
"It's an unnatural thing to do for a human being to look at something you believe in and try and rip it to pieces," Ulliott said. "It's a great quality exercise. Don’t rush into anything. Don’t quit a job to start a company if you don’t have to. There's nothing honorable about becoming a full-time entrepreneur. It's extra stress and extra risk. Think of that job on the side you have as revenue."
Make sure your business has been thoroughly tested, examined, and is capable if generating revenue before jumping in full-time.
Illinois is the second-most expensive to state in which to create an LLC
It costs $650 to create an LLC in Illinois, the second most in the U.S. Berman said that is legislated at the state level and is out of Mayor Emanuel's control, but the startup community could have a discussion on ways to lobby against that.
The single largest failure for many companies has been sales
"It's hardest hire, a sales manager, because it's the shittiest job," Tullman said. "Because when everyone on friday is at the bar ... the sales manager is figuring our who has to be fired. And if you’re not, then you're not doing your job. It's not exactly a happy task."
Ulliott added that it is easier to find a sales manager in Chicago than the coasts, though. Whereas engineers are abundant in Silicon Valley, sales talent is lacking. And vice versa in Chicago.
Today, there aren’t any industries that aren’t being completely disrupted
And education is next, according to Tullman. While other industries are advancing via technology, education has kept the same desks, classrooms, and essentially the same way of teaching. Chicago is ripe for tech innovation, as it has the largest charter network, the largest Catholic network, and the third largest cps network.
Photos by Jim Dallke