NOTE: This is a reproduction of a column I currently write for my employer, The Daily Herald Business Ledger of suburban Chicago, that was posted Wednesday, March 23.
Inside Elgin’s best-known historic building, Lasse Ingebretsen is plotting the city’s future.
His mission: To turn Elgin into “E-City.”
Ingebretsen is executive director of the Elgin Technology Center, a not-for-profit venture that focuses on bringing together the area’s technology talent and linking them to companies that need their help.
The ETC currently has about 80 members, from college graduates looking for their first job to companies with as many as 450 employees. Its members range from people and small companies looking for work to small and mid-sized companies seeking expertise, and its talent pool ranges from programmers and software developers to IT specialists as well as e-commerce, database and web developers. About 50 percent of the membership are startup and small companies, while another 30 percent are individuals looking for jobs, according to Ingbretsen.
The overall goal is to create an “IT ecosystem” in Elgin that would create an atmosphere of development and collaboration among the members, Ingebretsen said. That, in turn, will catch the eye of regional and national companies that have projects which require the expertise ETC members have to offer.
“This is all about local sourcing,” Ingebretsen said, “In fact, this is a direct attack on outsourcing. It can actually cost a company more to send a project overseas.”
The ETC’s base of operations is on the second floor of the Elgin Tower Building, a historic landmark that stands tall in the center of the city’s downtown. From there, members can rent office space for as little as $150 a month and also have use of a conference/training area and a tech reference center. In addition, the site provides a foundation where members can collaborate, share information and stay current with changes in their specialties.
Renovations of the floor started in January, and five member companies moved in during February. Ingebretsen’s goal is to have 115 companies in the building by 2015.
Ingebretsen is keenly aware of the significance of launching a tech venture in the Tower Building — which still features elevators operated by a person. Built in 1929, the building opened at the start of the Great Depression, but continues to survive through numerous economic cycles.
“People worked here and struggled through (The Great Depression) and they were better for it in the 40s and 50s,” he said. “We’re reinventing Elgin right now and what a great place this is to start that reinvention.”
For Jen Howver, owner of VOD Communications, it was the opportunity to network with tech professionals and be a part of a downtown revitalization that lured her to become the first ETC member to move into the Tower Building.
“I’m an Internet geek,” said Howver, a social networking and marketing specialist. “But I saw the potential of networking and connecting with people in other technical industries.”
She added having a physical space to conduct teaching sessions and meet with current and potential clients has proved valuable as well. And, like other members, she is using her expertise to expand the center’s online presence and help connect through social networking with potential clients and donors.
“There are a lot of untapped opportunities through places like LinkedIn and Facebook,” she said.
The ETC is governed by a three-member board of directors — of which Ingebretsen is not a member — and members also serve on one of four work groups, ranging from membership service and infrastructure groups to an employer relations group that promotes the ETC’s services to potential clients.
Another group is research and development group, which will keep members up-to-date on new developments and enhancements in the technology world. This group will also do beta testing for companies and share its findings and information with its members.
“This group will look at what’s developing out there so the ETC doesn’t fall behind,” Ingebretsen said. “We know what Microsoft and Apple are working on before our customers.”
The project is being funded primarily through Ingbretsen’s database development company, Castleway Tech. He hopes as the ETC becomes larger and more developed, it will attract the interest of larger companies, such as Microsoft, that would also be willing to provide funding.
The seed for the ETC sprouted from Ingebretsen’s days at Harvard University, where he went to study after receiving degrees from Elgin Community College and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. While at Harvard, he became involved with the One Kendall Square project in Cambridge, Mass. Developers there converted a former industrial area into an IT and biotech center, which now hosts more than 150 companies.
Ingebretsen figures Elgin could undergo a similar transformation. As the ETC develops into a central hub for technology-based knowledge and talent, companies will look to Elgin for project work and, possibly, relocation. In addition, the people that will be working out of the Tower Building will have a positive residual effect on downtown Elgin as they will want to shop and eat locally.
“We are creating an economic engine,” he said. “As we nurture the IT ecosystem and make it more diverse, it will become more stable. Once we’re really established here, it will stick with Elgin.”
Although Ingebretsen is devoting time and money into the project, he stresses that its success lies in its membership.
“These are the can-do people. These are the ones who can really create the system,” he said. “Our goal is to make this a nationally-recognized tech center.”