IVCA Profile: Philip Nevels, Executive Director of ChicagoNEXT at World Business Chicago

As marketplaces and technologies evolves, so does the organization World Business Chicago (WBC). Chaired by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, WBC is a not-for-profit economic development institution that advances the City of Chicago as a thriving location for business and financial growth. Within the WBC, there is ChicagoNEXT, which promotes the technology part of the WBC philosophy, and recently they named a new Executive Director. Philip Nevels had a fruitful career in the private sector and as an entrepreneur when he accepted the position as Executive Director at ChicagoNEXT.

Philip Nevels is a Chicago native and entrepreneurial go-getter, who began his career at Accenture. As an alumni of Techstars Chicago, he branched out into the world of entrepreneurs, as co-founder and COO of Power2Switch, a company which helped residential and commercial consumers shop for electricity needs through the web. Mr. Nevels also holds an MBA from the Chicago Booth School of Business, and a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Princeton.

The IVCA spoke to the young and dynamic Phil Nevels, as he talked about his goals for ChicagoNEXT, and the framework of World Business Chicago.

IVCA: What interested you in the position, and how did you feel that you would be able to bring something different to the organization?

Philip Nevels: My previous experience was a start-up of my own company called Power2Switch, and we were in operation for four years. To get to where we did with that company, we used many of the resources the city had to help develop our start up company – the Chicago Entrepreneurial Center, the Illinois Technology Association and Tech Stars, for example.

As a Chicago native, I saw this position as an opportunity to give back to the city, and to help improve and augment many of the same resources that we leveraged as a start-up. This informs my priorities in this new role, in terms of how can we make this a better ecosystem for tech start ups, and larger and more established tech companies as well.

IVCA: The description of ChicagoNEXT is to "drive growth and opportunity in the business climate related to science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship." What are your specific goals for achieving that objective?

Nevels: Yes, that’s a really big goal. [laughs] The main objective is not just start-ups or growth stage companies, but improving technology overall. I essentially have three objectives, validated by conversations we’ve had with many entrepreneurs, as well as established companies...

First, increasing the amount of capital for start ups and growth stage companies, in the form of both risk capital and grants.

Second, improving the pipeline of talent available for start-up companies. Specifically, engineers, coders, technologists and math majors to connect these resources to the companies.

Third, helping large and established companies work with start up and growth companies. Especially in connecting them with new clients – if a start up B-to-B company were to get an account with a Fortune 500 company,  that would provide the startup an amazing reference customer while  simultaneously providing the Fortune 500 access to new and innovative ideas.

IVCA: You began your career in client service for a number of familiar tech companies. How did that background propel you toward your own entrepreneurship, and the development of Power2Switch?

Nevels: I worked at Accenture before founding Power2Switch. That was a great professional opportunity right out of undergraduate school where I was able to develop my ability to sell. Sales is EXTREMELY important as an entrepreneur. You’re always selling as an entrepreneur– to your clients, employees, partners and investors. The advantage of working in a large client services firm like Accenture was being given the opportunity to sell within a client environment. That’s a skill set that some people take for granted, but it’s extremely important because growing a start up is all about how well you manage relationships.

IVCA: ‘CleanTech’ is a current buzzword when describing new energy and industrial development. What benefits to Chicago society and business can be realized within the definition of CleanTech?

Nevels: Cleantech is a big word. It’s energy generation, conservation and many other elements. For example, when you think of Exelon, you may think of a large utility with coal firing plants, but they also operate the largest fleet of nuclear power plants in the country 

But the biggest challenge with Cleantech, is that it’s highly dependent on policy. Many of the clean technologies that we’re familiar with – like wind and solar – many of those are only economically viable because of government intervention and subsidies. One of the hotbed issues in Illinois is fixing the Renewable Portfolio Standard,the mandate that we will source 25% of our energy from renewable sources by 2025. How we ensure this standard is achievable will have huge implications on the types of innovations that can be developed in this space here in Illinois 

IVCA: You are representing the City of Chicago through your organization. In your opinion, what governmental circumstances have changed under the Rahm Emanuel administration, that has evolved the economic development climate and the organization World Business Chicago in the Windy City?

Nevels: World Business Chicago has been around for 14 years, and their primary function was traditionally to attract and retain businesses in Chicago. What Mayor Emanuel did in 2011 was to expand the organization and commission the Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs. This plan is extremely comprehensive and  looks across ten major areas where we can impact job growth/creation here in Chicago. The areas include advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, tourism, workforce development, and others. Once the plan was created, World Business Chicago began to organize around each of the strategies in the plan. ChicagoNEXT is actually the embodiment of Strategy 7 of the plan, which focuses on how we develop the technology sector specifically here in Chicago 

IVCA: How is Emanuel’s administration viewed by entrepreneurs?

Nevels: He is a very pro-entrepreneur mayor. He has done a lot in the city to support entrepreneurship related to technology. He gets it. He’s constantly supporting the ‘1871’ tech incubator. The Mayor puts entrepreneurs on a pedestal – so that everyone can see what happens when you cultivate start ups within the context of regional economic development.

IVCA: The talent gap regarding technology has been an ongoing discussion for Chicago since the tech revolution began. How can the city keep the talent that comes out of the universities here, and promote the type of lifestyle that tech grads find attractive?

Nevels: The is a big issue that we’re working through. We’ve got the talent-development universities – Northwestern, the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology, for example – but there is always the ever-present circumstance of their technology graduates moving to the West or East coasts, which is an ongoing challenge. One of the larger initiatives we have now is called ‘ThinkChicago.’ It started in the Mayor’s Office two years ago, and it’s become an event in which we invite 150 students in technology disciplines from schools in the Midwest and other parts of the country. We bring them here, we showcase start ups and tech in the city, and we take them to various activities to allow them to interact with the city’s environment and tech leaders. Within that, we also have them take advantage of the city’s culture, with backstage passes to Lollapalooza, for example.

IVCA: How has Think Chicago had an impact?

Nevels: It’s the first step. The reason talent goes to the West and East coasts is because of the ‘brand’ that these locations have. They are known in tech, and Chicago hasn’t traditionally had a brand name associated with start ups, technology and innovation. Even though all of that is here, that’s not what our reputation has been. It’s important to bring students here, so they can experience our ecosystem for themselves. However, we also want ThinkChicago to be a platform for engagement with universities around the country. not just an annual event.

IVCA: So you are a native Chicagoan. Which neighborhood did you grow up in?

Nevels: I grew up around 106th Street and King Drive, near the old Pullman District. My mother owned a building there, and I grew up in one of the apartments.

IVCA: What message does your organization have for the Illinois Venture Capital Association, as far as what your distinct vision is for ChicagoNEXT, and how the association can interact with you?

Nevels: World Business Chicago is about job creation and job growth. One of the underlying beliefs within ChicagoNEXT is that technology will be a key to that growth. We’re in an increasingly more tech-oriented world, and start-ups will be central to providing the jobs of the future within that world. World Business Chicago cannot succeed without collaboration and views IVCA as one of the key stakeholders in our efforts to realize the goals of the Plan for Economic Growth.  A necessary component of supporting these young companies is access to capital. One of our major focuses is exposing investors to the great companies here in Chicago, and help equip start ups for relationship building with these investors.  

For more information about World Business Chicago and ChicagoNEXT, click here.