Only a couple years ago, the billion dollar sale of OptionsXpress and the $20 million venture capital round raised by grubHub.com would have been interpreted as landmark events for Chicago’s technology and entrepreneurial communities.
Today, in the backdrop of Groupon’s multi-billion dollar valuation and the greater availability of early-stage financing opportunities, happenings once thought to be remarkable are now increasingly commonplace. Yet Chicago’s entrepreneurial renaissance did not occur overnight.
“Groupon was a symptom of all of the great things going on already,” said Kevin Willer, who Monday became the CEO of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center after working for more than a decade at Google. “We’ve been building this up for a long period of time.”
As a co-founder of Google’s now 400-person Chicago office, Willer played an early and significant role in helping to grow the most important company of our generation. While Chicago’s tech community dusted itself off after the dot-com crash ten years ago, Willer saw first-hand how a couple of smart Internet entrepreneurs could literally change the world. Closer to home, Willer forged connections with the leaders of Chicago’s sprawling technology, business and entrepreneurial communities serving on the boards of TiE Midwest, the Illinois Technology Association and multiple civic, educational and philanthropic groups.
“One of the things that made me an attractive candidate is that through Google I’ve already forged partnerships with many key organizations in Chicago,” he said.
The CEC, which was founded in 1999 and is an affiliate of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, currently helps approximately 75 young businesses in high-growth sectors (not just technology) with financing and business introductions. The nine-employee organization (which has an expansive board of directors) also serves the community through programs like Future Founders, which teaches entrepreneurship to high school students from economically under-served areas.
Willer, who is also an active angel investor, through the CEC will also sit on the board of the I2A early-stage venture capital fund. He will have a first-hand look at Chicago’s — and maybe the world’s — next crop of startups.
“We are in a transformative moment where all the elements are in place,” he said. “Now it’s time to move forward and build the next generation of companies.”
Lightbank, Ashton Kutcher and others invest $1 million in Seattle-based startup
In a world where everything and everybody has a price, one-month-old Seattle-based startup Zaarly already has $1 million in the bank.
Lightbank, the investment vehicle of Groupon founders Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell (and most recently former Groupon president Rob Solomon), is among the first investors in the person-to-person e-commerce company. Zaarly helps individuals broker favors and errand-like transactions between people in the same location. Think of it as a service for those willing to pay a hundred bucks to get their favorite slab of ribs delivered in their hotel room (and conversely others willing to run the errand for some extra scratch.)
Other seed investors include actor Ashton Kutcher and Palo Alto-based Felicis Ventures.