08/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bringing Chicago Innovation Into the Sunshine

I'm convinced that the Chicago region can play a big part in the nation's economic recovery. It won't be courtesy of one big breakthrough. It will happen because the region has such a diverse economy that the sum of its parts will add up to something much bigger.

In my own work at the UIC College of Business Administration I work with student teams--all of them young people from this area--that use technology developed in our university laboratories as the basis of their preparation for national and international business plan competitions. The fact that they succeed against teams from the best B-schools in the world and the fact that in the past four years five of these teams have successfully launched biotechnology businesses tells me this region has plenty of brainpower and entrepreneurial spirit.

Another piece of evidence lies in what are called the Chicago Innovation Awards, which make it clear that the same drive to build business that I see in my students is part of the fiber of the region. What is really interesting to me, though, is how many different types of businesses--high tech, low tech, even no tech--are represented among the winners. (The awards have even gone to nonprofit groups and government agencies.)

At the high tech end you have Chicago startups like Feedburner with its technology for measuring web audiences and which was ultimately sold to Google. At the other end of the spectrum is the Gas Technologies Institute, which has developed a high efficiency steam boiler for heavy industrial use. The Shure Corporation is as steady an innovator in high-end acoustics as USG in reframing the wallboard market. I can't help mentioning TurboTap from Laminar Technologies, brought to market by a young man who combined beer and fluid dynamics to invent a way to pour a perfect beer in 2 seconds. If you don't think that's significant, think about the amount of beer poured in sports arenas around the world now using TurboTap.

It is this breadth of business types that suggests this region's opportunity to lead the way into the new economy. We're not linked to just one type of business. If one sector sags, others can surge. If all start surging, the potential is enormous.

I recently spoke with the Chicago-based innovation consultant Tom Kuczmarski after he toured the new Innovation Center at UIC. He and the journalist Dan Miller (who used to be Business Editor of the Sun-Times and is now at the Heartland Institute) founded the Chicago Innovation Awards. Tom's firm, Kuczmarski & Associates, helps large businesses around the world with product and service innovation strategy. And he has been teaching innovation at the Kellogg School for more than 25 years.

Tom told me that the nomination process for the awards is built around a simple, almost Twitter-like, question: What is your innovation? Asking it widely and persistently has stimulated a region-wide conversation that has been underway for eight years now and shows no sign of slowing down. It helps, I guess, that media partners include WBBM radio, BusinessWeek, and Crain's.

When Kuczmarski and Miller started the Chicago Innovation Awards in 2002, the idea was simply to recognize and celebrate innovation. The awards event was in a hotel lobby. Now it plays to a packed house each October at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Going from 30 nominees the first year to more than 300 last year, it is safe to say the conversation about Chicago innovation is well underway.

The next step was to encourage the region's innovators to meet one another. The fact that they are from many different business types is a blessing. But it can also be a challenge since the businesspeople move in different circles. So organizations like Wrigley, a long-time sponsor and this year the University of Illinois at Chicago, host a reception for all the nominees.

But networking isn't enough either. The principles of innovation can be taught. This is something we specialize in at UIC's business school. (We developed one of the nation's first undergraduate majors in entrepreneurship, an innovation that has been widely copied.) The Chicago Innovation Awards have teamed up with the Kellogg School's executive programs to teach a day-long course offered free to about 80 of the Innovation Award nominees. (It's not a small benefit. I checked a similar fee-based program at Kellogg. The price is $2,500 per person!)

A lot of people assume that something like the Chicago Innovation Awards must be a fundraiser for something. But no, it is purely a civic event and every aspect of it is free for all involved. The major sponsors are Wrigley, the law firm McGuire Woods, and IBM with a host of other businesses--Maggiano's, the Goodman Theatre, Anheuser Busch, 4-Door Films and others providing services and support.

The economy is showing some encouraging signs of recovery. The nomination period for this year's Chicago Innovation Awards will be wrapping up the first week of August. The nominees and the winners are likely to be a snapshot of the businesses that will succeed in the new economy and will serve to remind us of the strength of a broadly based economy.