For tech startups, hub is on horizon

A group of influential Chicago businessmen, led by billionaire venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker, plans to open a new center for technology startups early next year.

Pritzker and the other leading organizers — Troy Henikoff of incubator Excelerate Labs, Kevin Willer of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center and Matt Moog of startup Viewpoints Network — are searching for a nearly 50,000-square-foot space near public transit.

The project has not been named. As a model for the local effort, Henikoff said, the organizers are looking at a gathering spot, shared working environment and education center in New York City’s Flatiron District dedicated to helping entrepreneurs. Called General Assembly, the New York effort offers classes on topics from “Facebook Strategy” to “Startup Tax and Accounting,” in addition to housing companies. It opened this year.

San Francisco and Boston also have centers that are serving as models, Willer said.

“World leaders go visit General Assembly; it’s very cool, but our plans are far more ambitious,” he said, adding that the Chicago group hopes to lease a space more than double the size of General Assembly’s.

Willer said that Chicago’s tech community is scattered from the West Loop to Ravenswood. The center would be a centrally located site that the community can show off to visitors, but it also would relieve “a pain point” for fledgling businesses.

“Startups have a hard time figuring out where to live,” Willer said. “They have no credit. They have no capital. They can’t sign up for long-term leases. So our idea is to create a flexible environment where entrepreneurs can rent a desk month to month and work with other folks.”

More than 100 people are involved in giving advice and input on the project, which has been in the works for several months, said Moog, who also founded Built in Chicago, a Facebook-like site for local entrepreneurs.

“It’s an idea whose time is overdue,” he said.

Moog said the tech center would not be a traditional incubator, in which entrepreneurs receive free rent in exchange for giving the landlord equity in their companies. Instead, it would be a nonprofit. Startups would be charged rent by the desk or by the small suite. And the organizers would raise money from corporations and philanthropists to cover the remaining operating expenses.

The Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center and Excelerate Labs, which “graduates” 10 startups from its summer boot camp every year, also plan to be tenants, leaders of both groups said. Excelerate’s graduates could then remain closely linked to their mentors and each other by moving into another space in the tech center.

Organizers are keeping city and state officials informed about their plans, but, at this point, the project will be privately financed.

“Our hope is that people today working off their kitchen tables see this as an opportunity to step out and move into a space,” Moog said.

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