By guest authors Irina Patterson and Candice Arnold
I am talking to the co-founders and managing partners of TechNexus Fred Hoch and Terry Howerton. TechNexus was originally developed by private investment and community support in Chicago in partnership with the Illinois Technology Association (ITA) to serve as a “clubhouse” for the local tech community, and it evolved into co-working space and incubator for Chicagoan entrepreneurs.
Irina: Hi, Fred. Hi, Terry. Let’s start briefly with your previous work and how you arrived at this point.
Terry: Fred and I are both technology entrepreneurs and have been for a number of years. In 2005, we founded the Illinois Technology Association, which was a trade association to connect the tech community in and around Chicago, throughout the state of Illinois.
We built that over the last several years to now almost 700 member companies, software companies, hardware companies, service providers. It has a very strong presence throughout Chicago and the state, with connections into the universities, a good spread between entrepreneurial companies and and larger tech companies in the area.
Having built the ITA, starting that in 2005, sometime in 2007, we decided that we’ve built the club, now we really need a clubhouse. So, TechNexus began life as a clubhouse for the tech community, a place where people would be able to run into each other and meet and where the tech community would gather here in Chicago.
Very early on, we had a number of entrepreneurs who started to say, “Well, this is a really great area. I like being here where there’re so many people who are flowing through. Would you mind if I just took a desk over in the corner?” And that’s how the incubator portion of what we built began.
We didn’t set out to build an incubator, but by all accounts, we’ve probably built the most successful incubator Chicago has ever seen. We focused primarily on the Chicagoland area. In particular, downtown Chicago.
Irina: What was your background, Fred?
Fred: I have an eclectic background that includes startups, associations, and world travel. Before I came here, I spent five years working for the National Software Industry Association as an evangelist. I was in and out of both Washington, D.C. and the Valley, half a month, each one. I started Internet companies, none of them tremendous successes, as well as a biotech company.
Irina: What about you, Terry?
Terry: I have been an entrepreneur since I was 15. I have built a number of different companies over the years, mostly software and technology related. Over the past six or seven years, I’ve focused a lot more on social entrepreneurship and how do we build and connect the community, particularly around the technology industry.
Again, I was a founder of the Illinois Technology Association, and through that have built not only TechNexus, but we also started a high school, a charter school focused on technology and entrepreneurship and whole bunch of other initiatives that are in and around the tech and entrepreneurial community here.
Irina: Does TechNexus have any particular industry preference?
Terry: It’s a technology incubator. There’s a heavy emphasis on software, Internet, those types of businesses.
However, we’ve also got a presence within the facility from the Clean Energy Trust. So, we do have an interest in clean energy type initiatives.
We also have some partnerships with local hardware companies, and so there is an interest in incubating technology hardware.
It’s really at the intersection of where software, hardware and industry applicability meet. Can you take technology and apply it to solving clean energy problems or apply it to specific industry verticals in which we’re very strong – mobility, navigation, payments, health care …
Irina: How does a company come to your incubator program?
Terry: I think that’s one of the unique things about our incubator. Our approach to incubation is we’re not necessarily looking for only a certain size or stage of company. What we found to be successful is to have a good blend of companies of various stages.
We’ve got right now everything from the concept that an entrepreneur in residence may be kicking around as a skunkworks project, all the way to a couple of founders who are at the garage stage and trying to figure out what the next step is, to major corporations that happen to have advanced research teams or engineers sitting inside of the incubator doing innovative work.
It’s important to have different stages of companies and different stages of entrepreneurs working on things together underneath the same roof.