NOTE: This was first published in the Dec. 7 edition of the Daily Herald Business Ledger
While the suburban business climate remained fraught with uncertainty this past year, the Elgin Technology Center has continued to edge toward its goal of turning the city on the Fox River into a tech hub.
Since its formation in March 2011, the nonprofit venture has slowly inched toward its goal of creating 115 small tech companies in the city by 2015, according to ETC founder and mentor Lasse Ingebretsen. Based on the second floor of the historic Elgin Tower Building, the center is focused on bringing the area’s technology talent and companies together to develop an interactive relationship.
Since its launch, ETC has grown from about 80 to more than 250 members, Ingebretsen said. More than 25 small technology companies are also a part of the group.
“We are accomplishing our main objective, to attract more start up tech companies to downtown Elgin,” he said.
“We have seen more than 300 people drop by ETC in 2012,” he added. “By putting on more events in 2013 for programmers, developers, tech entrepreneurs and nonmembers,
we should see a more vibrant tech community and more visitors next year.”
One of the key goals is to develop an IT “ecosystem” in the city, whereby members can use the ETC to find work and local businesses can
find the tech talent needed for short or long-term projects. Ingebretsen said that ecosystem is beginning to thrive.
“People are finding new jobs, projects, and business partners,” he said. “This summer, five of our tech members who started at ETC in the Elgin Tower Building began doing business together. They outgrew our facility and moved to a 7,000-plus square-foot facility in Elgin.
“That means we now have a few spaces available for new tech companies that want to move to downtown Elgin,” he added.
The remodeled second floor of the Tower Building holds 11 offices that can be rented by small tech companies. Rents are subsidized by the nonprofit Stickling Foundation and go for $150-175 a month. All ETC members have full, free access to a tech library, conference room, cafe and training facility. They can also attend sponsored events, as well as have opportunities to meet and network with other members.
“Ninety percent of the small tech companies that have passed through here so far reported a substantial increase in their revenues as a result of ETC’s networking as a support system,” Ingebretsen said. “Our tech members are doing more work for larger companies.
“I do remain very optimistic about attracting larger companies to Elgin within the next 3 to 5 years,” he added.
While support for the center from the city of Elgin and other local groups like the Downtown Neighborhood Association continues to be strong, funding the organization remains a challenge, he mentioned. While the Stickling Foundation and local companies like Pittsburgh Paint have provided help — and organizations like the Motorola Mobility Foundation have helped in the past — the center continues to look for partners that can help further its growth and development.
The ETC membership recently elected a new board of directors and named Michael Copeland as executive director. One of Copeland’s roles will be finding new funding partners for the center, Ingebretsen said, and the new board members have extensive experience in nonprofit organizations.
“They are quite capable of taking ETC to the next level,” Ingebretsen said.
Copeland said he and the new board are hitting the ground running with new ideas and improvements. Additional user groups and events are in the offing, he said, and a new logo and improved website are in the works.
“With so many members, we want to institute a way to search their specific skills,” Copeland said. “For example, ETC may be contacted about a project needing a PHP developer, or an IOS developer. With a searchable database of members, we’ll be able to inform those members of these income-earning projects.”
He said one of the biggest take-aways of the recent board election meeting was the number of
ideas from members, which the board will prioritize and follow through with.
“Ideas are great but action is better,” Copeland said. “We’re helping to facilitate that action and collaboration to make the Elgin Technology Center an even better place.”
With Copeland taking on the reins of the organization, Ingebretsen will be stepping back a bit to focus on other areas where he can bring
value to the center, such as teaching classes and helping new technology startups.
“I’m a builder and innovator, and I’m used to handing off a project or an organization once it is up and running,” he said. “I’m quite comfortable passing control to the new team. Bringing ETC to the next level requires new skill sets, and the new board has extensive knowledge from larger nonprofit organizations that help secure ETC’s longevity.
“With everybody walking in the same direction, toward the same goal of ‘115 by 2015,’ we have gained momentum and created a good movement,” he said.