From grocery stores to parking lots, here's how Chicago tech is taking on established industries

Written by Michael Hines
Published on Nov. 15, 2017
From grocery stores to parking lots, here's how Chicago tech is taking on established industries
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The world’s most successful startups mix new ideas with technology to solve problems and shake up established industries. But launching a successful tech company takes more than big ideas and cutting-edge tech. A founder also needs to be sure they’re building a scalable business.

This balancing act isn’t easy, but many Chicago tech companies have got it down. We spoke to six of them to learn more about what it takes to successfully bring new tech to an established industry.


Peapod Rick Hanzelin Chicago startup
Photo via Peapod

Peapod is a grocery ordering and delivery company founded in 1989 during the internet’s infancy. VP of IT infrastructure Rick Hanzelin said Peapod’s ability to successfully build expertise in groceries, e-commerce and logistics is what has kept the company ahead of competitors.

How did Peapod recognize an opportunity to shake up an established industry?

What started out as a shopping service quickly developed into a business that combined grocery, commerce and logistics in a way that had not been accomplished prior. Peapod created processes, policies, offerings and technology that had never existed before. We were the first e-commerce company and are still the leader in home delivery of groceries.

How did your technology give you an edge over the competition?

Given that this business model had not existed before Peapod’s arrival, technology needed to be created to support our vision. Through a mixture of tenacious, home-grown systems and talent, and the leveraging of strategic third-party packages, Peapod brought internet grocery shopping to life. This was revolutionary in the early days and is still the cornerstone of what we do on a daily basis.

The tech was, and still is, the building block for the service, a touchpoint that is vital to our customers. My team revolves around the understanding that it is our job to provide the foundation so that the rest of the company can exceed the expectations of our customers.

Where do you see the industry in five years?

Don’t tell anyone, but we are working on a secret teleportation system that will beam groceries straight to your refrigerator and cupboards. Totally faster than a drone. All kidding aside, we clearly see growth in the industry.  

Everyone and his or her brother is trying to get into the grocery delivery and pick-up space. But the truth is that the combination of grocery, e-commerce and logistics is a complicated one. Many companies have tried and failed to enter the space, with a few strategic companies succeeding. The industry will grow and Peapod will continue to lead the way. But we always remain vigilant when it comes to our competition.


Strike Social Chicago startup
Photo via Strike Social

When Strike Social launched in 2013, social media advertising was just starting to explode. Despite entering an increasingly crowded space, VP and head of client service Andrew Selby said the startup was able to gain an edge over other firms thanks to an emphasis on artificial intelligence.

How did Strike Social recognize an opportunity to shake up an established industry?

Media buying has been around for a long time, but some of its processes have been slow to change. Strike Social’s proprietary AI technology, combined with a unique network of team members around the globe, is changing all of this.

How did your technology give you an edge over the competition?

Our technology emulates the best buyers in the business, in effect enabling junior media buyers to perform like seasoned pros. In fact, our AI has gotten so sophisticated that it now outperforms most human media buyers. Meanwhile, our global footprint helps us transcend time zones to provide agencies and brands with 24/7 campaign optimization.

Where do you see the industry in five years?

In five years, the media industry will continue to rely on technology and AI to help with decision making and audience targeting. A recent study from Digiday mentioned that fewer than 40 percent of all agencies use AI for their ad campaigns. Strike Social sees that number being closer to 100 percent in the next five years.


Enfusion Chicago startup president Jason Morris
Photo via Enfusion

According to Enfusion president Jay Morris, the company’s cloud-based asset management platform was a bit of an anomaly when it was released in 2006. Cloud technology was relatively new in the financial services space, and few companies offered solutions that managed multiple functionalities. Morris said taking the long view on technology is what made Enfusion so disruptive.

How did Enfusion recognize an opportunity to shake up an established industry?

Enfusion was originally founded as a development consulting firm that worked with asset management clients on strategic projects. This gave us unique insight into the challenges managers faced with the existing industry systems, and subsequently we decided to code and build our own offering, Integráta

We took the long view when building Integráta, knowing that technology advancements would force the industry away from multiple vendors with multiple systems hosted in house. Thanks to Integráta's cloud-based and fully integrated design, we were among the first to introduce automation, integration and simplification to financial services technology.

How did your technology give you an edge over the competition?

In addition to being cloud-based and fully integrated with all functionality in a single data set, we also roll out frictionless software updates every week. This allows us to avoid a lot of the headaches and overhead that other vendors and systems experience. Weekly updates are virtually unheard of in financial services technology as many established players only offer locally installed systems that require separate versions or specific upgrades for enhancements.

As a compliment to Integráta we offer a suite of outsourced fund services, plus we plan to introduce two new products in 2018, one of which is a Google-powered data warehouse named Enfusion Visual Analytics or EVA.

Where do you see the industry in five years?

As the financial services industry evolves, reduced margins and cost pressures are pushing asset managers to get more for less. Technology will have to adapt to meet changing needs, forcing core systems to offer more functionality. Conversely, every asset manager is different, so technology needs to be customizable. Lastly, regulation is changing quickly, so providers will need to adapt fast. Should be fun!


ParkWhiz team photo Chicago parking startup
Photo via ParkWhiz

When ParkWhiz launched in 2006, finding a parking spot was a low-tech affair. Fast-forward to 2017 and the startup is making it possible to book parking using only a smartphone or by talking to an Amazon Alexa-enabled device. CTO Jeff Judge believes the startup’s next big opportunity to reshape its industry will come with the rise of autonomous cars.

How did ParkWhiz recognize an opportunity to shake up an established industry?

ParkWhiz recognized in 2006 the excruciating pain that is finding parking and was the first to create an easy way to book parking spots online.

How did your technology give you an edge over the competition?

We evolved from a simple website that only offered event parking to allowing users to book parking spaces across the country using mobile apps and Amazon Alexa. ParkWhiz also partners with the likes of Ticketmaster and StubHub and has integrations with Ford and Jaguar Land Rover.

Where do you see your industry going?

We think there's a big opportunity in the space as autonomous vehicles come online and the world of mobility rapidly evolves. It's fair to say that parking will look dramatically different in 2025 than it does today.


Target Data interior Chicago startup
Photo via Target Data

Target Data helps companies use their data to craft more precise and targeted marketing campaigns. VP of technology Edward Yeh said the company was able to upend the adtech industry thanks to cost-effective software that enables the creation of more targeted advertising campaigns.

How did Target Data recognize an opportunity to shake up an established industry?

We recognized the need to give mid-cap businesses a better way to spend their marketing dollars and reach their goals. We saw the opportunity to harness our clients’ own in-house data and give them the ability to spend less, while at the same time getting more measurable results by leveraging their own customer data to make targeting much more precise.  

How did your technology give you an edge over established industry players?

We harness the power of a company’s CRM data and combine it with consumer data from 120 million American households to create a much more precise targeting result. Every campaign we execute is 100 percent addressable and 100 percent measurable. Each specific piece of media, whether it is offline or online, is measured to allow for engagement with a client’s best prospects in the most meaningful, relevant and profitable way.

Our technology focuses on streamlining the workflow of processing customer purchase data into actionable best prospect models that are ready for campaign execution. Utilizing our own custom-developed customer data automation system and state of the art big data tools, we can quickly load, analyze, cleanse and create very elaborate best prospect models with complete automation.

We aggressively focus on eliminating as many manual human steps in the data load, processing, modeling and match-back processes as possible. Our edge is in our ability to automate that very complex data lifecycle with our technology stack.


Semantify Chicago startup
Photo via Shutterstock

Semantify makes it easier for companies to gather actionable insights from their data. The startup’s platform lets users ask questions in plain English and receive data-based answers. VP of product strategy Arjun Dutt said Semantify was able to disrupt the tech-heavy enterprise data industry by keeping things simple and accessible for end users.

How did Semantify recognize an opportunity to shake up an established industry?

We saw an unfilled gap in a critical step of how companies were deriving operational and commercial value from enterprise data. Users, ranging from the call center representative all the way to the CEO, were not able to quickly get answers to respond promptly to customers, regulators and management.

This was because traditional business intelligence tools crowded the lower part of the enterprise architectural stack. Visualization tools offer some degree of end user empowerment for ad hoc analysis but require users to be knowledgeable about which sources contain every element of the relevant data and how to combine these elements to get an answer.

How did your technology give you an edge over the competition?

We built an industry-specific business and function-specific platform aimed at end users. It empowers people to use familiar industry and business vocabulary, not code, to accurately and instantly extract information from any data source, perform analyses and create ad hoc reports on the fly. Using our simple web-like search interface, they discover and analyze data through intuitively expressed queries containing multiple related variables, rather than predetermined standard reports.

Where do you see the industry in five years?

We see an acceleration of the trend of using conversational analytics in the enterprise setting and users conversing with IT systems just like they would with a colleague. That means interactions with more speech recognition and an increased ability to get precise business information and anticipate user needs automatically.


Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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