The Chicago Innovation Awards put the region's innovative prowess on display and should be an example for other cities
Eight years ago a close colleague and I launched the Chicago Innovation Awards to promote innovation in the Midwest. Since then, I have learned three things from running this program. First, there is a critical need to recognize the work of innovators. Second, Chicago has an incredible breadth of inventive thinking that runs through all sectors. And third, I had no idea that creating and running a program like this would take so much time, effort, and money.
Our idea was rooted in the strong notion that companies do not acknowledge adequately innovation efforts and successes. In fact, innovators and their teams often go unnoticed and unappreciated. Moreover, I became tired of hearing only about technology innovation on the West Coast and financial-services innovation on the East Coast. "Wait a minute," I'd say, "Chicago has a bunch of innovation going on."
As someone who has taught innovation at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management for 29 years, who has written books on the topic, and who runs an innovation consulting firm, I have been struck by the power of new products, new services, and new businesses. My friend Dan Miller, then the business editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and now executive vice-president of the Heartland Institute, agreed.
Year One, we received about 50 nominations from companies based in metro Chicago that recently had begun marketing a new product or service. After selecting the 10 most promising, we staged an awards ceremony in a local hotel. Among our guests of honor was Eugene Polley, the inventor of the wireless remote control. Even though the event was a small gathering—75 other Chicago-area people joined us—the energy was high and the celebration was a big success. It's grown bigger every year. We had over 300 nominations last year and 750 guests at Chicago's Goodman Theatre for the ceremony.
Big Corporate Sponsors
We always wanted to keep the Chicago Innovation Awards free of charge for everyone. For the first three years, that meant I had to reach deep into my pockets to fund the event. Since then, though, we have been able to get such sponsors as Wrigley, IBM (IBM), and law firm McGuire Woods to donate a couple of hundred thousand dollars altogether, which is enough to make all the programs happen.
We have also learned that people don't like to spend a lot of time filling out nomination forms, so we allow anyone to go to our Web site and provide us with contact info and supporting materials. We then ask for more information as judges get to work.
While the consultants at Kuczmarski & Associates do the first round of screening and due diligence of the nominations, our panel of 11 judges convenes three times to winnow the top 75 down to 10 finalists. The judges cast their votes based on each nominee's impact on society and the marketplace, inventiveness, financial results, and the extent to which its innovation solves a consumer or customer need.
For winning entrepreneurs, the award has brought credibility with investors and would-be partners. For bigger award-winners such as Motorola (MOT) and Abbott Labs (ABT), it has provided a rallying point for employees. When Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley meets with the winners each year for a private lunch in City Hall, their pride is obvious.
Inventiveness Without Boundaries
The breadth of innovation is inspiring. Past winners include Archipelago, for its electronic trading system that has transformed the New York Stock Exchange; Ocean Tomo, for creating an auction of intellectual property rights; Local Initiatives Support, for its approach to transforming urban neighborhoods; and Turbo-Tap, whose superfast spout has changed the way beer is dispensed in sports arenas across the nation.
Innovation isn't limited to corporations or even nonprofits. We gave an award to the City of Chicago for its work to help low-income people understand the value of the Low Income Tax Credit, and a second for a material that lets rainwater seep through alley pavement rather than run off into storm sewers.
We no longer fete only the 10 winners. We now invite every nominee to a reception, where they can mingle and make contacts. This also expands our (and their) network beyond the program sponsors. This year the University of Illinois at Chicago is working with us to host this added reception.
But networking alone isn't enough. Innovation isn't a "eureka" moment. It is not invention. It is a process that can be taught and learned. In our definition, innovation needs proof of impact. So Northwestern's Kellogg School now provides a free, day-long executive education course entitled "The Practical Innovator" for 75 nominees.
Today we know without a doubt that the innovative spirit is alive and well in the Chicago region. I'm convinced that if I went to any other part of the nation, I'd discover the same thing. So why doesn't every major city have an annual event like the Chicago Innovation Awards? It takes stamina by organizers and commitment by the corporate sector. We have been at it long enough that the Chicago Innovation Awards perhaps could be a role model.
Indeed, I think it's time to do this on a national scale. In previous columns, I have written about forming a national innovation policy. Central to my recommendations were innovation incubators and other measures designed to stimulate the creation of products and services such as a national innovation award akin to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. If our experience in Chicago is any indication, the benefits of honoring those behind the best new innovations in the U.S. would far outweigh any costs.
To learn more about our efforts, see chicagoinnovationawards.com.