Editorial: Groupon just a piece of city’s rich digital scene

In a speech two weeks ago, the billionaire venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker said he sees a promising future for Chicago tech innovators in the fields of biotechnology and clean energy.

It had taken 15 years for Chicago’s “digital startup ecosystem” to gel, he said, but now it was alive and well.

Such optimism was warranted then and it’s warranted now, though the poster child of Chicago’s tech boom, Andrew Mason, just got sacked, and the company he built, Groupon, continues to struggle.

Groupon led the way, catching the eye of investors; suddenly venture capitalists were considering Chicago startups. But while Groupon may be down, those “essential pieces” of the dot-com “ecosystem” remain in place.

Groupon itself “could never have existed if not for Chicago entrepreneurs,” Mason has said.

Consider 1871, the new technology center in the Merchandise Mart that has a goal of housing up to 400 startup companies. One charter tenant is SimpleRelevance, which helps companies send targeted emails and online messages. Another is Mobcart, a group-buying social network. A third is Code Academy, a Web-programming school. Other successful dot-coms, not based in the Mart, include OpenTable, GrubHub and SurePayroll.

Or consider Argonne National Laboratories, hardly a newcomer on the tech scene, which recently won a $150 million federal grant to develop a better battery. Old Argonne has become a new magnet for clean energy techies.

Gov. Pat Quinn has been an enthusiastic supporter, arranging a state subsidy, for example, to 1871. And the city is creating programs at five high schools that award associate degrees in tech fields to students when they graduate.

Groupon has faltered for any number of reasons unrelated to Chicago’s dot-com climate, beginning with a business model that is too easily replicated.

To get a better idea of Chicago’s flowering startup culture, drop by 1871 on the 12th floor of the Mart. Listen to the buzz of a couple of hundred urban hipsters drinking Intelligentsia coffee and tapping away at laptops.

Somewhere in there may be the next Andrew Mason creating the next big thing.

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