IVCA Q&A: Luke Tanen, Executive Director of the Chicago Innovation Awards, Regarding the Upcoming Awards Events

IVCA Q&A: Luke Tanen, Executive Director of the Chicago Innovation Awards, Regarding the Upcoming Awards Events

August 29, 2012

CHICAGO - “ The Chicago Innovation Awards are in its 11th year of presenting an annual event that recognizes innovation in a variety of markets. Drawing from all categories - “ including established businesses, start-ups, government programs or any spark of innovation that becomes a flame - “ the Chicago Innovation Awards had been a welcome addition in connecting innovators with both commerce and investors.

The Nominee Reception event is at the House of Blues in Chicago on September 5th, 2012.  The 2012 Chicago Innovation Awards ceremony will be at the Harris Theater on October 22th.  Executive Director Luke Tanen took the IVCA - ˜backstage' before these events, to talk about the impact and importance of the Chicago Innovation Awards.

IVCA: This is the 11th year of the Chicago Innovation Awards. What is the origin of this highly anticipated recognition event and what has been the most notable change or evolution in how you gather nominees and present the honors?

Luke Tanen: The Chicago Innovation Awards was started 11 years ago by two people, Tom Kuczmarski and Dan Miller.  Tom was running an innovation consulting firm, teaching courses on innovation at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Business and writing books about the subject of innovation. He still does these things today.  Dan Miller was the business editor at the Chicago Sun-Times.  They both felt that Chicago was not getting the attention it deserved for being a growing hub of innovation.  Silicon Valley was in the spotlight, followed closely by cities on the East and West Coasts.  Also both were tired of Chicago being perceived as - ˜flyover country,' they decided to start celebrating our homegrown innovators.

It began with a call for nominations, determining a judging process and setting up an awards ceremony.  Seventy five people attended the first Chicago Innovation Awards at the Sutton Place Hotel.  Ten years later, 1500 people packed a sold-out Harris Theater.

Over time, we've found that there is a real hunger in Chicago for innovators and entrepreneurs to be recognized for their work, to learn about what others are doing and connect with like-minded ingenuity.  Knowing that, the Chicago Innovation Awards has evolved over the years to be much more than just a one-night awards ceremony - “ it's about celebrating, educating and connecting Chicago's innovation community throughout the year.  We'll host or co-host a total of around ten large events during the year, all focused on innovation.

IVCA: What has been most significant about how the reputation of the Innovation Awards have grown. How has the community responded to this annual event as far as creating the buzz?

Tanen: What has been very rewarding is to see the entire Chicago community embrace the idea behind the Chicago Innovation Awards.  Because we focus on innovation across all industries - “ whether large companies or small start-ups, in government and non-profit, or whether it's high tech, low tech or no tech, we welcome everyone into our tent.  Virtually every business and civic membership organization each year spreads word of the nomination process to its members as a way to recognize their innovations.

Over the years, more and more media organizations have joined forces with us to celebrate Chicago as a center of innovation.  The Sun-Times was our first media partner, then later we added WBBM and Crain's Chicago Business.  Today, our media partnerships includes running commercials for the Chicago Innovation Awards on all major TV stations - “ thanks to Comcast - “ plus an ad campaign on CTA buses and trains throughout the city. Just last month, we signed on NBC as a new TV partner.  All these organizations help us spread the word and generate buzz around innovation in Chicago.  It's our belief that you can go to any company and ask the question: - ˜What's your innovation?' and every one of them will have an answer.  If they don't, they might what to rethink why they are in business.

IVCA: What is the process of whittling down the nominees to the eventual winners? What criterion or criteria is eventually given the most weight in the final selections by the team of expert judges?

Tanen: It's a much more intensive process than most people realize.  It takes two months to pick the winners after we close nominations. That's because we do a tremendous amount of secondary research, and follow-up interviews with nominees.  The 13 judges do a great job of identifying the most promising nominees each year.  In fact, out of the 100 companies that have won a Chicago Innovation Award in the past ten years, all of them are still in business.  We take great pride in that track record.

In terms of criteria, the nominees are all weighed against the characteristics they have, that answer the following questions: What problem, want or need are you solving for the end user?  What new value is being created by this product or service?  Why is it unique?  What is its market impact?  Probably the market impact question is most important because it gets at the difference between invention vs. innovation.  Innovations have market impact.

IVCA: How are the Innovation Awards significant to the Venture Capital/Private Equity industry and how have those industries responded to and supported the awards?

Tanen: We find that Venture Capital firms and people interested in investing in new companies love attending Chicago Innovation Awards events - “ it's because the room is filled with smart people who are in the process of launching the next big thing.  We've seen many of our nominees and winners find investors at CIA events.

IVCA: How are the awards best connecting nominees and winners to the business community, and what programs through the event has been most successful in doing so?

Tanen: I would say that the media recognition of winning a Chicago Innovation Award is the best way for these companies to connect to the business community.  For small companies, winning provides an added sense of credibility.  This helps when trying to set up meetings with potential new customers or clients.

IVCA: You recently wrote a letter to Crain's Chicago Business regarding the debate of obtaining patents as an indication of success over ideas and innovations. How does that debate tie into the Chicago Innovation Awards?

Tanen: I wrote that letter because there was an article that Crain's published called - ˜The Most Innovative Companies in Chicago.'  In the article, the most innovative companies in Chicago were ranked according to how many patents they held.  Of course, patents are an indication of - ˜newness' and certainly provide protection from competition, but I wanted to share the opinion that innovation is much more than just patents.  It's really more about the process of listening to customers, understanding what they need and finally developing an offering in the marketplace that differentiates them, bringing real value to the end user.  That's how our judges think when weighing the nominees.  If that is accomplished, then the fruits of innovation - “ which comes in the form of revenue and profits - “ will be realized.

IVCA: Of all the winners in the Chicago Innovation Awards history, which one continues to impress the world of commerce with continuing ideas and growth?

Tanen: There are more than just one. We've seen GoGo Inflight Internet start with providing internet access to just a few planes, now it is thousands.  TurboTap, another past winner, pours beer more than four times faster than other taps, and is being used in stadiums all over the country. From the government sector, the CTA Bus Tracker is being used as a model for cities across the world that want to learn how to use transit data to improve the experience for riders.

From last year there is Red Frog Events, who brought the obstacle-course-meets-5K-run concept to their customers, and has now expanded into the music industry by throwing its first Lollapalooza-sized music festival on the east coast.  One thing we've found with innovators is that they always think about what they're going to do next.

IVCA: Speaking of innovators, besides that direction toward a potential monetary reward, what common traits do you find in the Chicago Innovation winners?  What is the X factor that ties them together and creates the energy that fosters that innovation?

Tanen: I think a lot of innovators in Chicago, and across the world, are tied together by their willingness to take risks.  We've found that winners of the Chicago Innovation Awards all seem to be pretty good at embracing failure as part of the innovation process.  When we interviewed 80 past winners of the Chicago Innovation Awards for our book, - ˜Innovating- ¦Chicago-Style: How Local Innovators are Building the National Economy,' we learned that many of them stumbled, fell down, rose up, stumbled again and yet ultimately achieved success. One of my favorite quotes is by a pretty well-known Chicago innovator named Michael Jordan, when he said - ˜You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.'  That's a good thing for all of us to remember.

For more information about the upcoming events of the Chicago Innovation Awards, including registration information, click here.