IVCA Q&A: Luke Tanen, Executive Director of the Chicago Innovation Awards, on the Nominees and Upcoming Ceremony

IVCA Q&A: Luke Tanen, Executive Director of the Chicago Innovation Awards, on the Nominees and Upcoming Ceremony

September 11, 2013

The Chicago Innovation Awards is one of the most highly anticipated annual celebrations of Midwest ingenuity and inventiveness. The 2013 edition, in which top honorees will be recognized at a ceremony on October 30th, has had a record breaking 562 nominees. The Chicago Innovation Awards were established in 2002, and has grown steadily in the number of new businesses, products, technologies and services recognized, and in the excitement that this recognition brings to the Windy City. The mission of the Awards are to make Chicago a recognized hub of innovation and to ignite a new narrative regarding the creativity in the region, which also strengthens the region’s economic future. Since the first ceremony in 2002, over 110 winners have made an impact through their innovation.

The IVCA talked to Executive Director of the Chicago Innovation Awards, Luke Tanen, on the impact of the Awards recognition, the record number of nominees and the upcoming ceremony on October 30th, 2013.

IVCA: This year, there were a record-setting number of nominations, with 562 nominees. What do you think set this year apart, as far as motivating so many people to nominate that many considerations?

Luke Tanen: There are several factors that led to this year’s surge in nominations, which jumped to 562 from 390 last year.  In the start-up world, the capital and technology needed to start a business are lower than we’ve ever seen. This makes it easy to launch a new venture. Large corporations are seeing this upswing in entrepreneurial activity and are realizing that to stay ahead, they need to invest more in innovation. All of this has led to a greater proliferation of new products and services in Chicago. At the same time, we’re bringing a greater awareness than ever to celebrating innovation in our region. Thanks to our media partners – the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s, WBBM Newsradio and NBC – we ran a $3.5 million ad campaign to encourage companies to nominate for the Awards. So while Chicago’s innovators have redoubled their efforts, we did the same. It was a double whammy!

IVCA: This is your 12th event, starting from 2002. What have been the most significant improvements in the way the process and organization of the nominations have evolved, and how has the buzz increased regarding the event over the years?

Tanen: In 2002, when Tom Kuczmarski and Dan Miller started the Chicago Innovation Awards, the focus was largely centered on ‘celebration.’ Over time, as a community began to form around the idea that it is good to recognize new products and services developed in our region, we increasingly focused on ‘innovation education’ as another core mission of our work. We do this each year through a series of events and conferences featuring various innovation thought leaders and educators.  

Today, the theme of ‘connection’ is a very important third mission of the Chicago Innovation Awards. By connecting investors with start-ups, government with the private sector, for-profits with non-profits, and students with companies looking to hire them, we’ve seen the fruits of innovation take hold in our region – economic growth and job creation.  

One major new initiative we launched, ‘The Innovators Connection,’ is focused specifically on connecting our region’s large companies and small start-ups. There is tremendous opportunity that exists and will be realized once these types of connections are made. All of these activities build upon each other and fueled the buzz for the Awards.

IVCA: There are so many categories of innovation, even though most outsiders would assume that it's only tech or tech products. What is an example of a nominee or nominees that are less about tech, and what makes their product or service innovative?

Tanen: That’s one of the things that I love most about the Chicago Innovation Awards. The focus is on all types of innovation – high tech, low tech and no tech, across all industries and sectors.  

One of this year’s current Top 100 nominees is the ‘RoboHandle’ by Ergonomic Tools.  It’s a plastic handle that attaches to the end of broom. It enables the user to use their biceps instead of their wrists, reducing strain caused by repetitive and unnatural broom pushing movements. The inventor has a patent and he’s already sold over 50,000 RoboHandles in a very short time. It’s been valuable to construction and cleaning companies, the elderly and everyday household consumers. You can’t get much more low tech than a piece of plastic attached to a broom handle! But it’s addressing an unmet need and providing value to end-users in a unique way that is already having impact in the market place. That’s the mark of innovation.

IVCA: We are becoming a hugely technological society. What do the tech innovators do that really impress you – either current nominees or past Award winners – that really have made society in general a better place – or has the potential to do so – because of the product and service, and why?

Tanen: We’re seeing companies using technology in really smart ways to address social problems, for both individuals and communities. ‘GiveForward,’ a past Up-and-Comer winner, is approaching $100 million raised for needy families and their medical bills using a powerful online crowd-funding platform. Champion Medical Technologies, one of last year’s winners, is making an impact in the healthcare space through its creation of software that can track recalled medical devices for hospitals and patients. In this year alone, the judges saw more than a dozen LED lighting technologies aimed at energy conservation. There were also a couple impressive battery storage technologies that came out of Argonne this year to improve energy efficiency.  If any of those take off, the impact will be felt in many ways.  

IVCA: What product or service has come out of the Innovation Awards that people use the most, and how do you think that use has contributed to evolving or assisting those people who use it?

Tanen: One of my all-time favorite Chicago Innovation Award winners is a product called the Turbo Tap. If you’ve ever bought a beer at Wrigley Field, the United Center or most stadiums across the country, you’ve likely interacted with this product. When Turbo Tap won the Award in 2005, it was pouring beer in 2 seconds, compared to the industry standard of 8 seconds. This product has increased concession revenues for stadiums and bars by increasing throughput, led to greater customer satisfaction by reducing consumer wait time in lines and even improved the quality of the beer by enhancing aeration during the pouring process. It shows that really great innovations create value in lots of different ways.

IVCA: What are details for the upcoming event?

Tanen: Come to the Harris Theater on October 30th for this year’s Chicago Innovation Awards.  That night is one of my favorite of the year and I hope everyone who reads this can come and join us.

The 12th Annual Chicago Innovation Awards will be presented on October 30th, 2013, at the Harris Theater in Chicago, Illinois. For ticket information and more details click here.