by Cheryl V. Jackson and featured in Chicago Tribune
After years of feting local innovators, Chicago Innovation Awards co-founder Tom Kuczmarski ⇒ found himself the recipient of an honor himself Monday night, as well-wishers celebrated his recovery from an accident this summer that broke his neck and spine, leaving his right leg paralyzed.
"We are in awe of your strength, your perseverance, your willpower — everything that makes you a role model to all of us on the team," said Luke Tanen, the ceremony’s co-host and Chicago Innovation’s executive director.
The Resilient Innovator Award, presented to a surprised and teary-eyed Kuczmarski, was the last award of the night.
After a tree at his Michigan home fell on his head and severely injured him in June, Kuczmarski spent two months in rehab at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab — also an award winner this year.
Kuczmarski said he'd considered relinquishing hosting duties this year, ending a 15-ceremony run.
“I thought about it. And then, I said, 'Nope. I'm going to do it one way or the other,'" he said.
The 2017 awards show was the first produced since the Chicago Innovation Awards organization renamed itself Chicago Innovation in April to reflect its year-round programming, and its first awards show since co-founder Dan Miller ⇒ cut back his involvement in the event.
The 25 winners, with products and services in industries from health care to parking to snacking, were selected from more than 530 nominees.
The number of on-stage hosts doubled from previous years: Kuczmarski and Tanen shared hosting duties with Executives' Club of Chicago President and CEO Ana Dutra ⇒ and Tastytrade president and Co-CEO Kristi Ross ⇒.
Grammy award-winning folk duo Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, who were presented with the Spirit of Innovation Award, also performed.
The 16-year-old organization says 100 percent of past award-winners are still in business and raised a total of $1.2 billion after their Innovation Awards honors; 37 of them have been acquired in deals totaling $77 billion, Chicago Innovation says.
A new Winners Connection program focuses on supporting the growth of past Chicago Innovation Award winners. An upcoming monthly podcast will feature past winners. Chicago Innovation also partners with Technori to have a past winner present at each of the showcase’s monthly events.
"Our mission is to keep making more noise about Chicago as a hub of innovation because we want to attract more talent and more investment," Tanen said. "If we can do a great job of that, then there's going to be more opportunities like Amazon considering Chicago for its second headquarters and more students from different universities considering Chicago as a place to start their careers."
Regular monthly programs — from women's mentoring events encouraging innovation among seniors or those trained on particular areas such as artificial intelligence or food innovation — are serving a broader community, he said. But the increased offerings aren't likely to eclipse the awards program, Tanen said.
"We still remain squarely committed to celebrating Chicago's innovators,” he said. “No matter how many programs or events we're doing, that's always going to be the biggest part of what we do."
The evening’s main award winners were:
• Narrative Science, a producer of business intelligence software that converts data and graphics into plain English
• Livongo, maker of a suite of diabetes care tools including a blood-sugar monitor that can send information directly to medical professionals
• Reverb, an online marketplace for buying, selling and learning about music gear
• Fooda, which replaces traditional corporate cafeterias and food court kiosks with rotating restaurant caterers
• 150 N. Riverside, a new Chicago office building with an inward-sloping base and a number of other architectural innovations
• Abbott, for its Similac formula that has an immune system-supporting prebiotic previously only found in breast milk
• Valent BioSciences for its Zika-fighting insecticide that targets mosquito larvae during the day
• SpotHero's parking app, which is integrated into some connected-car systems
• Simple Mills, for its crackers that contain no grain, gluten, soy, dairy, GMOs or artificial flavors or fillers
The Chicago Innovation Up-and-Comer Awards for startups went to:
• BallotReady, a digital voter guide with detail on all candidates on a ballot
• Tock, an online ticketing system that helps restaurants forecast demand
• Tovala, a smart oven and meal delivery service that custom-cooks meals by scanning package bar codes
• Lisa, a marketplace for on-demand personal services, including hairstyling and massages
• Chowly, which integrates orders from restaurant aggregation into the restaurant's existing point of sale system
• PhysIQ, a sensor-based patient monitor that assists pharmaceutical companies with clinical trials
• NowPow, a data-powered matching engine that connect people with health care resources in their communities
• Georama, mobile live-streaming software that promises reliability and quality
• Explorer Surgical, which makes software for surgical teams enabling teamwork and safety in the operating room
• Pearachute, a monthly membership club that lets parents discover and book kids' activities
It was the second year for the Chicago Neighborhood Awards, presented to innovators and entrepreneurs focused on solving needs unique to Chicago neighborhoods and an effort to drive diversity in the local innovation ecosystem. Black and Hispanic-owned enterprises have been sparse among main-category honorees over the Chicago Innovation Awards’ history.
The 2017 neighborhood awards went to:
• The Wings Program, a domestic violence assistance provider
• The Oak Street Health network of primary-care clinics that specialize in adults with Medicare
• Boombox, which transforms shipping containers into pop-up storefronts for small businesses
The Social Innovator Award went to Regroup Therapy, which offers mental health services to rural communities through telepsychiatry.
Benefit Chicago got the Collaboration Award for its $100 million impact investment fund to support Chicago-area social enterprises through collaboration between the Chicago Community Trust, the MacArthur Foundation and the Calvert Foundation.
IN2, a secondary-school innovation center run by the Illinois Math and Science Academy, won the 2017 People's Choice Award.