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Plan to honor 10 great ideas grows into major event

The Goodman's Albert Theatre was filled to its 850-seat capacity Monday night as business and technology fans celebrated the 2010 winners of the Chicago Innovation Awards.

The awards, now in their ninth year, recognize innovators big and small, high-tech and low-tech, geeky and workaday, who have created a unique solution that's become a hit in the marketplace.

The audience at Monday night's Chicago Innovation Awards delighted in surprise guests and special award winners Blue Man Group and Chicago Blackhawks Owner and Chairman Rocky Wirtz.

The Blue Man Group, who performed a comedy skit accompanied by the group's musical trio, was honored for their ability to advance performance art. A band member said, "Thanks," while one of the otherwise mute Blue Man Group uttered, "Whoa!"

Wirtz, who is president of Wirtz Corp. and Wirtz Beverage Group, a distributor of wine, beer and spirits, won the Chicago Innovation Awards' Visionary Award for overhauling the Blackhawks into Stanley Cup national champions and for investing in state-of-the-art technology in the family's other businesses. Wirtz also is an investor in Sun-Times Media.

Wirtz said that he and his father, the late Bill Wirtz, "had much more in common" than meets the eye, especially since Rocky Wirtz changed much of his father's strategy in leading the Blackhawks.

"We believe strongly in family succession," Rocky Wirtz said, acknowledging that the transition from his father to himself was "a very public one."

Wirtz said when he took over the Blackhawks after his father's death in 2007, the Blackhawks organization was so troubled, it was difficult to find sponsors, faced fans who were very angry, "and we were barely able to make payroll."

The team was on the verge of losing a generation of fans, he said.

As fans know, Rocky Wirtz brought in new management, new players, and televised the games for the first time. An ESPN article published in June said that a 30-second commercial spot sold for $400 when the Blackhawks debuted on TV. Those spots now sell for $12,000, according to the article.

Wirtz said he takes a similar attitude toward his beverage distribution company, Wirtz Beverage Illinois, which sports a new look, a new brand, and millions of dollars of investment in technology to keep its complicated distribution channels running smoothly.

Wirtz said that he likes to think that his dad is smiling down on Chicago, "glad at what we accomplished."

Wirtz said he hopes that his family continues in future years to accept awards for innovation.

The Chicago Innovation Awards heard from keynote speaker J.B. Pritzker, managing partner and co-founder of the Pritzker Group and founder of venture-capital firm New World Ventures, that Chicago is starting to weave together its disparate entrepreneurial groups.

"We finally have a fabric being woven from Chicago groups," he said, citing the emergence of cooperative efforts among the Illinois Technology Association, the Illinois Innovation Accelerator Fund, the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center and Excelerate Labs, as well as venture firms such as Sandbox Industries, Wildcat Angels and Hyde Park Angels.

"This is the best time for start-up companies in the technology community since I started (New World Ventures) in 1995," said Pritzker, who noted that General Electric, Microsoft and Groupon got their starts during tough economic times.

New World Ventures supported the Chicago Innovation Awards' "Up-and-Comer" Award, which went to InContext Solutions for its 3D virtual store research, in which shoppers "walk" through virtual retail stores and report their responses in surveys. The 3D environment offers companies market research at one-third the cost and one-quarter of the time of in-person, real-store research.

The People's Choice Award went to Touch Taste Technologies for its TouchLife interactive tables, in which patrons at restaurants, bars and nightclubs order on touch-screen tables and via their mobile devices. The result - quicker ordering - reduces customers' wait times, entertains them while they wait and enables the restaurant to serve people with greater ease and speed.

Monday's capacity crowd was a far cry from the awards show's first year, where 75 people munched hors d'oeuvres at a downtown hotel to honor the award winners, recalled Dan Miller, who as business editor of the Chicago Sun-Times started the Innovation Awards with Tom Kuczmarski, president of Chicago-based management consulting firm Kuczmarski & Associates and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

"Tom came to me, asking, ‘Why don't you profile an innovative company- ' He came to the Sun-Times because it's approachable. And I said, ‘Why don't we profile 10 innovative companies- '"

The idea grew into a competition to recognize 10 innovative companies each year and throw a reception in their honor, Miller said.

"Every year, we've attracted more nominations," Miller said. This year's competition drew the most ever, despite a tough economy, at 332.

The awards show has also garnered 30 sponsors, including this year's "Gold" sponsors Wrigley and Allstate.

Miller said he feels "more excited than proud" about the event's success and its ability to recognize often-overlooked success stories.

"There is so much going on in the Chicago area, from online companies such as Groupon and Feedburner to companies that make a new kind of wrench," he said. "And it's all made in America."

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