Fox Valley towns becoming home to technology startups and expansions that put the ‘e’ in entrepreneur

The “cloud” cover is thickening over Chicago’s far-west suburbs. A variety of businesses hanging their hats on the potential of the Internet and its vast virtual vault are putting down roots in the western suburbs — home to many inventors, engineers and other big-picture thinkers — and cultivating an employment base that previously has been an anomaly outside the country’s major urban centers.

Technology-based industry is gaining ground in an assortment of ways in and around the Fox Valley. The business model is establishing an increased presence in Naperville with such undertakings as software development, online marketing, web design and the services those entrepreneurs need to help them thrive. The business community is poised to build its role in the tech sector as well.

Elgin has a vibrant, centralized support network designed specifically for technology professionals, and Aurora has been strategically targeting tech employers for most of the past decade.

Heads in the ‘cloud’

Aurora saw the need to work on being ahead of the tech curve several years ago, as it was updating its long-range economic development vision. By 2006, officials in the fast-growing city saw the need to plan for incorporating high-speed broadband connections into processes community wide, 8th Ward Alderman Rick Mervine said.

Not yet a City Council member at that time, Mervine was tapped to draw on his background in the private sector to formulate a strategic plan in preparation for the new electronic age.

The network went live in 2008, connecting all city buildings with a more reliable, more secure system than its predecessor.

In 2011, Mayor Tom Weisner put together a technology roundtable to study other ways Aurora could use and expand the network. The group concluded it would be particularly valuable in facilities that focus on education, health care, social services, and arts and entertainment — as well as its continued application to building business and growing jobs.

The promise of technology as a driver of commerce has been on Elgin’s radar for a while, as well. Established in the downtown area in 2011, the Elgin Technology Center operates under the credo “connect, create, collaborate;” providing a place where tech entrepreneurs take part in meet-ups, seminars and networking, some meeting weekly to nurture their businesses.

“Elgin Tech Center is the only profitable space within nearby neighboring cities which provides intellectual capital,” said Milan Shah, owner of the app development venture Virtual Scribe, who used the center while developing some of his more successful projects.

James Stubblefield’s company, Reading Glue, offers education technology services from its base in Elgin. He also finds the tech center a valued business asset.

“The Elgin Technology Center is the main reason I like working in Elgin,” Stubblefield said. “It is really hard to find coworking spaces in the suburbs, and I really love how it has been key in bringing together so much of the tech community.”

Lending support to innovators is also the aim of Rev3. Opened on Labor Day on Northern Illinois University’s Diehl Road campus in Naperville by the economic-development entity Choose DuPage, the Rev3 Innovation Center is designed to support entrepreneurs and businesses using a wide-ranging approach to ground-up enterprise development.

Nick Zito, director of business services for Choose DuPage, felt there was a void in entities devoted to bringing together like-minded thinkers and equipping them with the tools needed to bring their ideas to fruition.

Calling the new endeavor “something of a business incubator,” Zito compared Rev3 to foster care for fledgling business, a way to give form to ideas.

The boom in tech companies doesn’t surprise the head of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce.

“In order to remain valued and appeal to younger members, we need to be relevant. So I decided that I wanted to implement Tech Forum, which will be a combination of tech companies, marketing companies as well as some representatives from our Young Professionals network,” said Nicki Anderson, the chamber’s president and CEO. “I won’t be able to kick that off until 2015, but I feel we must.”

Bytes on the ground

Those now working in the tech industry locally pursue an array of specialties. Some are directly involved in technology, such as NewGen Business Solutions in Warrenville, which provides software support and implementation services for businesses; and Verenia LLC, a software development company that specializes in project management and mapping services in support of cloud-based commerce, operating out of a space on Fifth Avenue near Naperville North High School.

Verenia’s 31-year-old CEO Vic Pellicano realizes the profession sometimes presents itself in unexpected ways. Drawn to the desktop computer his father purchased when Pellicano was in junior high, he said he didn’t immediately foresee the electronic gizmo parlaying into a successful career.

“My dad never used it, but I began fooling around with it and things just clicked,” he said. “I started writing software just for the fun of it.”

Bruce Jones founded his Naperville company in his home office during his off hours, when he was working as an IT manager for a Lombard company. Design and Promote, which offers web design, branding and internet marketing services, was named 2014 Small Business of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce.

As an IT professional, Jones was intrigued by the power of search engine optimization and its ability to help the business grow, and wanted to build on the principle.

“SEO means that you are only marketing to people that are looking for your product or service already, so the ROI is way more than most other forms of advertising,” he said.

Before long, necessity had given rise to a new invention for his young company.

“The web design part of our business was born because some of our SEO customers with existing websites were not getting enough new leads. Their websites were informational and were not designed as a lead generation tool. So we started making custom websites that turn more visitors into customers and that has been working well for both us and our clients.”

For Marmion Academy alumni Bill Angsten, Patrick O’Rahilly and Brian Greviskes, the technology boom has made it possible to make new strides in the manufacture of custom automated machinery.

The trio’s Elgin company, Compass Automation, has been drawing engineering talent away from such tech-employment powerhouses as Google and Facebook to devote their attention to building highly specialized machines.

Not all local tech jobs are in private industry. The nonprofit OnLight Aurora works to expand the virtual network established at the municipal level.

Formed in 2012, the organization is run by a board and small staff who use grant money to seed new tech enterprise. More than $1 million in grants has been secured so far, establishing new resources for the Community Fund of the Fox River Valley and the philanthropic Dunham Fund.

“OnLight Aurora leases fiber for the city,” Mervine said.

The network’s increased power also has helped draw three new data centers to Aurora in the past two years: the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, PDS, and ByteGrid.

The network reaches beyond “bringing in the tech jobs,” Mervine said.

“There are opportunities for connectivity,” he said. “The key here is to be able to provide a variety of economic development opportunities.”

Read the rest of the story at the Naperville Sun.

NewsMonica Kucera