[Updated 9/26 to correct the spelling of Eric Lefkofsky’s name and to correct the number of companies Lightbank has founded (14, not seven).]
Unlike many cities across the country, Chicago has no intention of trying to become the next Silicon Valley. The Windy City is happy doing what it does best: nurturing startups to leverage abundant opportunities amidst the nation’s most diverse economy.
Yet, in one key measure important to venture capitalists, Chicago already surpasses Silicon Valley: return on investment (ROI). Nearly half of Chicago tech investments (45 percent) have provided a 10-times return on investment compared to 25 percent ROI in Silicon Valley, according to a recent analysis of figures from Pitchbook and government reports by Hyde Park Angels.
Chicago is already a tech powerhouse, and its maturing ecosystem of investors, mentors, and successes continues to blossom. If 2017 remains at its current pace, this will mark the fifth straight year of record-setting tech investments. Chicago’s tech scene isn’t a typical overnight success story; rather, it is the result of long-term sustainability, committed re-investment, and truly diverse startup opportunities across a breadth of industries.
Consider these recent Chicago successes:
- Cleversafe, a data-storage firm, was purchased in 2015 for $1.3 billion by IBM and is now the backbone of IBM Cloud Object Storage. Chris Gladwin, Cleversafe’s founder, has now launched his fourth Chicago software startup, Ocient.
- Fieldglass, a cloud-based vendor-management system, was acquired by SAP in 2014 for more than $1 billion.
- GrubHub, the fast-growing food delivery service that handled nearly $3 billion in food orders last year, recently paid $287.5 million to buy Eat24 from Yelp.
- Outcome Health, a digital media firm focused on serving healthcare facilities, is now valued at $5 billion, thanks in part to a $500 million investment by Goldman Sachs Investment Partners earlier this year.
- Similarly, Goldman Sachs invested $150 million in 2016 in SMS Assist, a maintenance scheduling business, leading a valuation north of $1 billion.
- Uptake is a predictive analytics firm that monitors industrial assets in more than 94 countries and is valued at $2 billion. Uptake is one of 14 companies founded by Chicago-based Lightbank’s Brad Keywell and Eric Lefkofsky, with five of them going public, including Groupon.
Explaining why Goldman Sachs has invested heavily in Chicago startups, partner Topher Dawe told Crain’s Chicago Business, “While these businesses aren’t necessarily the household names as some of our other companies, like Spotify or Uber, these are incredible businesses tackling large addressable markets. We’re actively looking for more Chicago deals.”
Chicago tech is particularly strong in B2B sectors, including healthcare, fintech, food, software, and service industries. That breadth of opportunity is directly tied to the strength and resiliency of Chicago’s overall economy, where no single industry employs more than 14 percent of the total workforce. Also, the notion that Chicago is simply a fly-over city is false: Chicago is the heartbeat of the country’s transportation industry. Fifty percent of U.S. rail freight passes through the city, while our two airports – O’Hare and Midway – are among the nation’s busiest.
So why doesn’t Chicago garner more national credibility as a dynamic startup hub?
For one, Chicago’s startups aren’t that sexy. They focus on logistics, data storage, back-office efficiencies, and in the case of SMS Assist, maintenance. Unless you have skin in the game – and by that, I mean investment dollars – these businesses aren’t ones that grab consumer attention.
Second, investors here are more conservative than their coastal counterparts. We like to see some success before we invest: customers, a product, and a positive cash flow. That’s the opposite of Silicon Valley, where investors tend to bet on promising ideas more than established returns.
Third, startups are just one part of a sprawling economy. Tech gets more or less the same amount of press as any other industry here. As far as Chicagoans are concerned, that’s fine. This diverse economy is reflected even within the tech ecosystem, where there are more than 15 Innovation Hubs each specializing in a different sector of technology, from food innovation and manufacturing to healthcare.
The Chicago tech economy continues to expand. Chicago’s 2016 direct technology GRP was $23.76 billion; and while that only comprised 3.9 percent of the area’s overall GRP, it represents an almost 40 percent increase since 2011.
Another huge advantage for Chicago is a ready talent pool. Apart from Boston, Chicago has more four-year universities than any other U.S. city. Chicago is also a magnet for graduates of other top Midwestern universities, such as Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Illinois. We have more graduates from those universities than any other city in the world. And the lower cost-of-living, compared to similar U.S. cities and particularly Silicon Valley, keeps those graduates here.
Recognizing this wealth of talent, well-known tech companies from the coasts, such as Uber, Google, and PayPal, have extended their operations to include Chicago. The result is over 143,000 people working for Chicago tech companies in 2016, 32.8 percent more than 2011.
Mark Tebbe is Chairman of ChicagoNEXT, the technology arm of World Business Chicago and organizer of this month’s Chicago Venture Summit. He has more than 30 years of entrepreneurial and startup experience, included the founding of two NASDAQ-listed publicly-traded corporations.