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Rahm to U. of I. tech aces: Won’t you please come to Chicago?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel addresses students National Center for Supercomputing Applications University Illinois Urbana-Champaign. File PhoTuesday October 2 2012.  |

Mayor Rahm Emanuel addresses students at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. File Photo, Tuesday, October 2, 2012. | John Dixon~News-Gazette via AP

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:27AM

URBANA — Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday came to where the Internet all began, with a singular message to a few hundred University of Illinois computer whizzes: When you graduate, think Chicago.

Flanked by the city’s top technology geniuses, Emanuel even wore an orange-and-blue tie to make his aggressive sales pitch to some of the university’s aspiring computer science and engineering students to start their careers and businesses in Chicago, not the Silicon Valley.

“I want you to have a different perspective on the city of Chicago. Obviously, given your research capacity here, people from the coasts, companies, other opportunities come calling. I think I’m the first mayor of the city of Chicago to come calling on you,” Emanuel told the crowd at the university’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications auditorium.

“I want you to — rather than come up to Chicago, get to O’Hare and fly out — stay. And I want you to see the city of Chicago as your opportunity and your future,” he said.

Emanuel, who told the students of his desire to “close the 140-mile distance between us,” was joined onstage by a who’s who of Chicago’s big-time tech giants: Groupon co-founder and venture capitalist Brad Keywell; GrubHub co-founder Mike Evans, and BrightTag co-founder Eric Lunt.

Each made the case that Chicago is a fertile place for technology startups, with money to get them off the ground; a great quality of life; a knowledgeable work force, and an energetic mayor who has made technology part of his job-growth agenda.

“If there’s one thing we need more of, it’s you guys to spend more time in Chicago, understanding there’s this unbelievable ecosystem being formed, and what’s missing is a direct connection between Champaign and Chicago,” Keywell said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Evans, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, shared his success story, which involved coming to Chicago to work at, then, in 2004, creating out of frustration at not finding delivery restaurants and enduring wrong orders.

It was a time that likely will be remembered in Chicago’s history as the “golden age of the startup community,” Evans said.

“It turned out it was the most vibrant and most fertile ground for me to do a startup, and that’s why I did it then and that’s why if I did another startup now, I’d do it in the city of Chicago,” he said.

Emanuel talked up the city’s night life, vast ethnic diversity, vibrant theater district, and his emphasis on making Chicago a musical hub by pushing Lollapalooza.

“We’re also offering free tickets to Lollapalooza if that’s what it takes,” Emanuel said wryly, with a wink, drawing laughs from the students.

He drew an even bigger laugh when responding to a student’s question about whether Chicago could recreate one of the Silicon Valley successes by offering a more nurturing environment for hackers — a creative, computer-software programming subculture embedded in academia.

“We have a hack culture in City Hall, too,” Emanuel deadpanned before breaking out in a broad grin. “Proud of it.”

Since taking office, Emanuel has placed a huge emphasis on establishing Chicago — and, in particular, the Merchandise Mart and River North district — as a cradle for technology startups and turned to tech CEOs, like those he appeared with Tuesday, for testimonials.

Earlier this year, he touted Motorola Mobility’s move from Libertyville to the Merchandise Mart as affirmation of his digital agenda, but the 3,000 jobs that initially were promised wound up being cut by 750 by Google’s decision to cut 4,000 jobs worldwide from its wireless phone business.

Last month, Emanuel shrugged off that setback by pulling together an agreement between 21 fast-growing tech companies to create more than 2,000 jobs in the city by 2015 — a move that coincided with his push to establish high-speed Internet to underserved Chicago neighborhoods, industrial corridors and public spaces.

During his appearance Tuesday, Emanuel reaffirmed his commitment to his technology policies by making what seemed to be a glancing and perhaps unintended critique of Gov. Pat Quinn’s globe-trotting ways. Without naming the governor, Emanuel emphasized that there’s more economic potential in trolling the U. of I. for the next Steve Jobs than going on any foreign trade trip, as other mayors across the country have done. His comments directly follow Quinn’s trip last week to Brazil to push Illinois exports.

“I’ll come here seven times before I’ll go overseas,” Emanuel said.

The University of Illinois scored a dramatic breakthrough in 1993 by devloping Mosaic, one of the most innovative early Web browsers. It directly led to the Internet boom that launched Netscape. MicroSoft and scores of other companies licensed the technology, according to the university.

The mayor’s message resonated afterwards with some of the students, including Northbrook computer engineering student Nelson Osacky, who spoke briefly with Emanuel after Tuesday’s presentation and came away thinking he might give the city a second look.

“This does change my mind a little bit. I guess I would consider Chicago,” said Osacky, who is interested in pursuing a career in software development and has interned for a tech firm in San Diego. “I still think the Silicon Valley, for computer science and engineering, has a lot more potential. That being said, I think Chicago is up and coming.”

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