Credit: Watering hole ecosystem image via Shutterstock
Chicago's TechNexus may be the ultimate anti-incubator incubator, if you need to pin a label on this innovation hotspot in the heartland. Co-founder Terry Howerton thinks that "collaboration center and clubhouse" has a nicer ring when it comes to describing the organization he co-founded in 2007. It's actually that and more — it's a nurturing community dedicated to the diverse tech business ecosystem blossoming in the City of Big Shoulders.
Scratch it and, on the surface, it does have a lot in common with what we think of as business incubators and accelerators: it's a safe haven for budding businesses that provides a roof over the head, access to resources and the chance to rub elbows with fellow entrepreneurs.
But it goes much deeper than that. TechNexus is the gateway to collaboration for Chicago’s technology leaders. It began with private investment and community support and in partnership with the Illinois Technology Association (ITA) with the mandate to serve as a "clubhouse where ventures grow and a co-working facility to bring technology professionals together, foster relationships and promote a sense of community in Chicago."
"It's an osmosis center," Howerton told BusinessNewsDaily. "It's a common watering hole where co-workers can rub shoulders. It's not a bunch of consultants or companies sharing services."
It's chalked up a pretty impressive track record in five short years. TechNexus has served as the launch pad for 167 startups that have raised about $80 million in capital and created about 500 jobs. Forbes magazine recently ranked it as one the top 10 startup incubators in the country.
What sets it apart from the tech startup hothouses that are sprouting up across the country is its singular focus on diversity. TechNexus is a hodgepodge by design, and proud of it.
Yes, it does provide physical space, shared services and access to expertise, the stock in trade of most incubators. And there are workshops, roundtables and programs. But it's what it doesn't have that's equally important, Howerton believes.
What it doesn't have includes a one-size-fits-all standardized curriculum and term limits for resident companies. It also lacks a proverbial "no-grownups-allowed" sign hanging on the clubhouse door.
"Building a company is chaos," Howerton said. "It's organized chaos."
The standardized, top-down approach of traditional incubators and accelerators is not entrepreneurial and it doesn't foment chaos, he said.
TechNexus is designed to encourage that entrepreneurial and opportunistic chaos by creating an environment where wildly diverse people can collide, ricochet and spin off in new, wholly unexpected directions, he said. Its intent is planned serendipity and peer-to-peer collaboration.
"That's where the real magic is," Howerton said. "It's not interesting to build with the same kind of people. Cross-pollination is a good thing."
You get a richer entrepreneurial gene pool that way, he believes.
As one resident entrepreneur said to Howerton, "This is ground zero for the people I need."
More than 3,000 people a month — including entrepreneurs, engineers, executives, students and faculty — come through TechNexus, Howerton said. It's an environment that's equally welcoming to big companies and other corporate outliers as it is to garage-band startups. There's value, Howerton believes, in getting bigger companies plugged into the ecosystem to inform decisions and exchange advice and expertise up and down the entrepreneurial food chain.
The mix of companies is intentionally heterogeneous, reflecting the rich diversity of the Chicago technology community. It's a balanced ecosystem of people who contribute real value to each other each day, Howerton said.