Get creative: How leaders at 8 Chicago tech companies facilitate innovation

by Alton Zenon III
July 11, 2018

Innovation is the name of the game for companies looking to stay competitive as markets evolve. But what can you do, exactly, to ensure that your company stays on the cutting edge? We asked leaders at eight Chicago tech companies to find out.

 

project44 team in the office
image via project44

Large logistics companies use project44 to boost their visibility and efficiency. The company’s APIs handle pricing, routing and scheduling from all ends of the supply chain. Jett McCandless, founder and CEO, wants employees across the company to pitch and work through their ideas when they’re struck with inspiration.

 

What makes your technology so impactful in your industry?

We’re changing the way the transportation and logistics industry shares information, enabling global organizations to leverage and analyze deep data analytics for the first time ever. That means replacing decades-old and outdated technology infrastructure with a foundational, ubiquitous network of APIs, resulting in a more productive and efficient global commerce network, far fewer supply chain disruptions and greater trust and predictability. 

You never know where the next great innovation will come from.”

 

How do you encourage innovation?

We encourage everyone at project44 to take ownership when they see something that they think can be improved upon, or a new problem to be solved. Two of our values are “roll up your sleeves” and “obsess over the customer.” When those two happen in tandem, stimulating and innovative ideas start coming out of every department and everyone. We encourage all team members to vocalize their ideations and follow through on them — you never know where the next great innovation will come from.

 

What are the most interesting tech challenges your team is currently working to address?

We spent our first few years as a company building out our core network and products, and we now have the infrastructure set to work on some of the more advanced analytical capabilities — things like AI, IoT, machine learning, blockchain, etc. These are areas that have the potential to completely transform our industry and our next challenge is going to be incorporating them on top of our core functionalities while we also continue to mature and scale the reach of our network.

 

Compass team at a banquet
image via compass

 

Compass is a digital network of real estate agents across a number of cities that use technology to streamline the buying and selling process, making life easier for agents and the people using their expertise. Eytan Seidman, head of product, said an abundance of tools allows agents to see increased levels of success. 

 

What makes your technology so impactful in your industry?

Compass is a real estate technology platform harmonizing the home buying and selling process. 

We’re building a single platform to simplify a fragmented experience.”

 

How do you encourage innovation?

There are currently more than 250 niche third-party software tools for agents, and the average agent uses 11 of them. We’re building a single platform to simplify a fragmented experience. Our tech contributes to increased agent productivity — the average Compass agent is 24.9 percent more productive in their first year. 

 

What are the most interesting tech challenges your team is currently working to address?

We are the first and only company to bring engineers together with agents under one roof. Working with the customer every day allows the team to consistently improve and learn from reality.

 

Citybase squad at work
image via citybase

CityBase connects citizens to their city governments via a cloud-based SaaS platform, allowing them to efficiently access information for multiple agencies pulled directly from government databases. Jim Segal, a CityBase senior software engineer, said his team’s goal is to make life easier for the public and the departments they interact with.
 


What makes your technology so impactful in your industry?

We are changing the way that constituents interact with their local governments by digitizing entire processes from the front end through the back end. From adjusting the user interface so a person can easily submit a permit request online, to the staff workflow that allows them to vet and approve that permit, our tech allows constituents to get faster responses and more transparency for their requests, while also allowing governments to streamline their in-house processes.
 

Our tech allows constituents to get faster responses and more transparency.”

 

How do you encourage innovation?

We recently held our first internal tech conference, where CityBase engineers presented on lots of topics. Most of the presentations were not specific to CityBase, but helped us think through innovations that could be connected and incorporated in the future. 

 

What are the most interesting tech challenges your team is currently working to address?

By working with the public sector, we are encouraging a slow-to-adopt market to use technology that helps improve the user experience for the people they serve and their diverse needs.

 

Collective Health presenting at conference
image via collective health

Collective Health is a cloud-based health management system that allows businesses to better manage their healthcare offerings. Izi Aviyente, Collective Health’s director of engineering, said a key part of their ability to remain successful has been been automation of processes leading to more productivity. 

 

What makes your technology so impactful in your industry?

We are all active participants in the U.S. health insurance system and we believe that we deserve better than the status quo. We are able to create a more efficient healthcare system by leveraging modern technology to help automate workflows that are usually very manual and often error prone. This allows us to focus our time and energy on the aspects of the relationship with members that benefit from the human touch — like personal conversations with our member advocates to help find an in-network doctor nearby. 

There’s a kind of elegance in the ability to distill complex problems into concise solutions.”

 

How do you encourage innovation?

We follow our curiosity and encourage employees to come forward with their ideas — whether that’s introducing a new technology, trying out a different engineering practice, or a new feature for our platform. We also organize regular hackathons where everyone across all departments is given time to come up with ideas and execute on them for two days. It gives people room to create everything from quick new tools for immediate use to prototypes of larger product-focused ideas.

 

What are the most interesting tech challenges your team is currently working to address?

Right now, we are building the backbone for our payments infrastructure, which transfers over half a billion dollars annually. When you’re dealing with moving money at that scale, you’re faced with something that’s innately complex and challenged to find a way to make it easy to digest and understand. There’s a kind of elegance in the ability to distill complex problems into concise solutions and we strive for that in everything we are building for our customers. 

 

OneSpan Chicago Office
image via onespan

OneSpan helps banks and financial institutions protect people’s identities, devices and transactions using a suite of technologies. According to Jeff Cole, chief information officer, achieving this while attempting to reach a global consumer base can sometimes be a challenge. 

 

What makes your technology so impactful in your industry?

Our solutions are designed to address the multi-billion dollar fraud problem that our customers, primarily banks and financial institutions, are facing. We start with an open, cloud-based platform that enables fraud prevention, regulatory compliance and digital onboarding by leveraging our multi-factor authentication, fraud analysis, mobile app security and e-signature technologies to fully secure users, devices and transactions across all digital channels. Through APIs, we can integrate a bank’s existing technologies, and we can also plug in third-party fraud tools to leverage broader data and more effectively detect fraud in real time.

There is a lot of cross-departmental and pan-regional collaboration that naturally sparks innovation.”

 

How do you encourage innovation?

We have an official innovation center whose role is to look at new and emerging technologies and their applications to our current and future solutions. Their current focus areas include blockchain or distributed ledger and artificial intelligence or machine learning. Beyond this specific group, there is a lot of cross-departmental and pan-regional collaboration that naturally sparks innovation in our processes and problem-solving.

 

What are the most interesting tech challenges your team is currently working to address?

My team is focused on the global roll out and adoption of new technologies to help streamline processes and ensure our employees can work more efficiently and collaboratively across our global offices. We’ve rolled out everything from web conferencing to CRM to CCM to a new ERP system, improving how we work in the process. It’s a benefit to employees to be able to work with the latest technologies.

 

Keeper Security team lunch
image via keeper security

Keeper Security is a cybersecurity company whose products help consumers and businesses keep their passwords, documents and data safe. Mitch Rosen, principle solutions engineer, said navigating an abundance of good ideas can make deciding which ones to implement more difficult.

 

What makes your technology so impactful in your industry?

Keeper implements an unmatched zero-knowledge architecture, which means it ensures privacy and increases consumer and business security. Security after all, is about reducing risk. Keeper not only remembers passwords for you but gives you the ability to ensure each one is unique and created with strong entropy, which reduces risk. This really hits home when you consider that more than 80 percent of breaches are caused by weak passwords and poor password management practices. 

When solutions provide a time-saving convenience and increase security, it's a win for everyone and a no-brainer to implement.”

 

How do you encourage innovation?

The market and the high volume of cyber breaches drives our creativity. Some of our best innovations have originated through the “what if” conversations we have among our teams and with our customers. When solutions provide a time-saving convenience and increase security, it’s a win for everyone and a no-brainer to implement.

 

What are the most interesting challenges your team is currently working to address?

Knowing what to focus on first. We have so many amazing ideas and features that we are excited to bring to fruition, sometimes it’s difficult to prioritize. Each idea is so cool that we want to bring all of them to market at the same time! However, we have to be pragmatic and good stewards of our resources. It’s like the old saying goes: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, as fast as you can.

 

BRD team on hike
image via brd

BRD streamlines the complicated process of buying, using and storing Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Shivangi Gandhi, principal software engineer on BRD’s Android team, said transparency is a major factor in driving the creation of new ideas at the company. 

 

What makes your technology so impactful in your industry?

The potential to revolutionize banking as we know it. With traditional banking, your money is stored on the bank’s servers. The bank has full access and full control to charge fees and enforce spending limits and the worst part is they are making tons of money off your money. Our wallet is decentralized. Your private keys are on your phone. You own your data. You have all the power. You have full access to your money anytime, anywhere. Even transferring money over borders is painless and virtually free.

We encourage transparency all the way to up to the executive level.”

 

What are the most interesting tech challenges your team is currently working to address?

Because we are decentralized, our app connects directly to the blockchain. One of our biggest challenges is that we have to sync to the blockchain on your phone while our competitors have servers with much more computing power to complete the same tasks. Our team is working on ways to improve syncing times to enhance our user experience.

 

How do you encourage innovation?

We encourage transparency all the way to up to the executive level. Showing our employees that we trust them gives them a reason to care. It creates a safe space where everyone is inspired and encouraged to share ideas.

 

Eved team outside in snow
image via eved

Eved is a company that provides software and services for businesses so they can better manage their events spending. Jacqueline Coleman, Eved’s head of product, said innovation is spurred by sharing stories about employee and customer success, and then attempting to translate that into better products. 

 

What makes your technology so impactful in your industry?

Eved helps bring the fragmented and complex data related to the planning, purchasing and paying for meetings and events into one, purpose-built procure-to-pay system. 

We host internal lightning sessions in small groups and share ‘stories’ from clients, the market and our personal lives.”

 

How do you encourage innovation?

We host internal lightning sessions in small groups and share “stories” from clients, the market and our personal lives in all-hands meetings that keep us all connected to our customers and help us continue to innovate in this unique space. These stories are paired with our bi-weekly demo days, where anyone in the company can come see development work in progress and push us on whether the latest builds reflect those stories and solutions that are paramount to our users.

 

What are the most interesting tech challenges your team is currently working to address?

The software makes the financial process much easier and helps surface key analytics needed to excel in the live meeting and event marketing channel. That’s a lot of data to analyze and one challenge for us is to determine how to bring data insights that are universal to our broad base of clients but also balance the nature of these very unique and personal events.

 

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