Is Chicago developing a connected tech triangle?

February 2, 2016

Anyone who’s liminally familiar with the Chicago tech ecosystem knows the importance of real-life communities. The physical spaces tech companies inhabit often act as catalysts and muses for much of the innovation they work to achieve. They can connect and inspire; they can provide resources and support.

That’s all fine and dandy, but as it stands, there isn’t much interaction between those hubs. It’s hard, frankly, to travel from one tech hub to another for whatever reason — meetings and interviews and networking events included.

But there may be formal plans in the works to connect the corners of Chicago tech.

Call them whatever you will (hubs, incubators, co-working spaces), but at the end of the day, Chicago’s sundry tech spaces are vital for the health and prosperity of the city’s burgeoning technology sector. A few — the Merch Mart’s 1871 in River North, UI Labs on Goose Island, 1K Fulton and its neighbors in Fulton Market — have cemented themselves (or, are in the process of cementing themselves, literally and metaphorically) as the fulcrum of the tech scene in their respective locales and in the city proper.

As entrepreneurs and techies flock to these sort of micro-regional hubs like small-town artists to the big city, developers and planners have taken note. Their presence alone has spurred additional development projects next door, and their developmental and economic influence is significant enough to identify 1871, UI Labs, and 1K Fulton as the anchors to what some are calling Chicago’s tech triangle.

According to Brian Bukowski, a project executive for Skender Construction who’s worked on tech projects at the Merchandise Mart and 1K Fulton, there’s already been some talk about how to increase transportation, collaboration, and communication between those hubs.

“I have seen some big picture plans about ways to connect transportation between these three hubs,” he said. “Obviously the city holds the bigger picture, and I don’t know what’s going to happen or isn’t going to happen. But there is intention to make it easier to commute to those areas.”

Whether or not those plans are ever fully realized, Bukowski said development plans in the West Loop are currently in full swing — with little signs of slowing down anytime soon.

“I think we can expect that many buildings in the area are going to get redeveloped and repositioned over the next five to 10 years,” he said, adding that some of the new companies in the area (i.e., Google) started a chain reaction of companies moving west in search of older loft buildings with a touch of industrial flair.

Transportation development aside, not everyone is fully sold on the importance of a more connected tech triangle at all — or even where the borders of such a triangle lie.

“Right now we see the tech triangle as stretching between 1871 and the Mart on one end and Groupon and the 600 building/Goose Island on the other,” Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871. “Certainly the Fulton street area (less the fish markets) could be the 3rd leg of the triangle over time.”

Tullman said he’s excited about development of Goose Island. And he should be — after all, he was responsible for moving and rebuilding Kendall College to the area a few years ago, establishing it as what he called the “original anchor” for most of the new initiatives in that arena.

Still, Tullman questioned the efficacy of connecting Chicago’s scattered hubs just for connectedness’ sake.

“Within Chicago itself, there's not much incremental value for the members to attempt to connect a bunch of different locations with very little in common, different motives and objectives, for profit and non-profit entities, university initiatives, etc,” he said. “I doubt that we need another group of groups and more meetings to talk about what we are doing. You can't win a race with your mouth. We prefer to put our heads down and get stuff done.”

UI Labs, a center for digital manufacturing that brings together universities and industry to advance research and business, also said a tech triangle currently exists, stretching from the Loop/Near North to the West Loop and up to Goose Island — where they’ve set up shop.

“At UI Labs, we are pleased to be an anchor of the tech scene on Goose Island – or what we like to call ‘Innovation Island’ – along with our current neighbors at the Wrigley Innovation Center and 600 West Chicago, with plenty of real estate development in the works by R2 and other developers,” said UI Lab’s senior manager of strategic communications, Alyssa Sullivan.

She said connectedness between hubs is essential, but as a representative of one of the harder to reach clusters of tech spaces in the city, that response is perhaps unsurprising.

And Sullivan added it’s not just startups who are paying attention to what — and where — innovation is coming out of.

“You also have large Chicago corporates setting up innovation operations downtown to ‘be near the action’ and participate in this vibrant ecosystem,” she said.

If those dollars really start to trickle in, and if places like Goose Island and the West Loop continue to develop at a pace many pundits have observed, it could be time for the city to consider putting some infrastructure in place to support Chicago’s ever growing tech ecosystem.
Photo via Shutterstock.

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