Life in the Silicon Prairie

August 2018 View more

The term “Silicon Valley” conjures up images of casually clad IT gurus, tucked deep within innovative incubator sites in San Francisco and northern California, hatching brilliant strategies for the next big tech breakthrough.

Without question, the Silicon Valley continues to be a hot spot for emerging technology and venture capitalists (VCs), but there is another area of the country claiming its share of successful technological advances and start-ups: the Silicon Prairie. Depending on the source, the geography and definition of the term varies. But most agree that the Silicon Prairie encompasses the industrial pockets in the middle of the country, independent of the tech and business sectors on the East or West Coasts. Tech start-ups are launching—and staying—in suburban areas of Austin, St. Louis, Omaha and Chicago, as economic and quality of life benefits of doing business outside of the Silicon Valley are realized.

Naperville has proudly taken an important place in the Silicon Prairie, thanks to giant tech R&D companies like Nokia, Lucent, Navistar and Ecolab, as well as plucky tech startups and fast growing midsize businesses. In fact, local tech companies are working hard to attract and retain top talent working on the next big technological advancements, and 2018 has been a banner year for local business acceleration.

Naperville as Home Base
Back in 2014, Nic Zito noticed that the city of Chicago was catering to entrepreneurs with big ideas. Zito is currently the business services director of the economic development organization Choose DuPage. “There were well over 100 innovation spaces in Chicago, and they were even niching down into women’s only, tech only, financial only, etc. The collar counties had nothing.”

When Choose DuPage charged him with creating an initiative to help startups, Zito took the idea to a group of entrepreneurs looking to launch technology businesses. He found that the two most requested resources were a community with networking and a physical, professional working environment to get them away from home and out of coffee shops. With the enthusiastic sponsorship of Northern Illinois University, Rev3 Innovation Center was born. It’s a place where entrepreneurs can collaborate and share resources as they build their businesses.

Rev3 resides on the first floor of the Northern Illinois University Conference Center on Diehl Road in Naperville. It offers shared office and coworking spaces, along with access to event rooms and classrooms furnished with state-of-the-art multi-media equipment. Other resources, such as the NIU Learning Resource Center, are just down the hall. 

“Our tenants have included entrepreneurs as young as 17,” Zito says, “and about 60 to 70 percent of the office space is currently taken by tech companies.” One such tenant is Armarius Software, which was launched last year and joined the Rev3 community soon after. Brian Berglund, industry veteran and founder of Amarius, chose the space in part because of its techy vibe, and its connection with his alma mater, NIU. Armarius offers an information security product to detect and prevent data loss by helping employers understand how employees use technology in the workplace. The software is sold through Armarius clients, who provide managed IT service to businesses.

Berglund never felt the pull of the Silicon Valley for venture capital or clientele. With deep roots in the area and a vast market here, he didn’t see the need. “We have 11,000 IT-managed service providers in the state,” he says. “Everything I need, from my family roots to opportunity to resources through NIU is here.”

Naperville as Incubator
Entrepreneur Victorio Pellicano of Verenia also made the conscious decision to steer clear of the Silicon Valley and instead locally bootstrap his Configure Price Quote (CPQ) software  business here in the Silicon Prairie. The decision paid off.

It all began when Pellicano was taking a break from law school and took a job in customer service. He was responsible for buying and installing a lackluster CPQ tool, which inspired him to create a better one. Verenia was launched in 2012 with Pellicano working as a solopreneur in his basement.

The company now claims its place as one of the fastest-growing CPQ companies in the nation. Verenia helps manufacturing, wholesale and retail companies in the $5 to $300 million e-commerce range—companies like Lovesac and Bennington Marine—streamline their ordering system, while offering customers a visual, intuitive way to build and price their order. The company has
grown 600 percent in three years, and has more than doubled its employees, now at 40, since 2015.

Early on, Pellicano had heard tales of the unparalleled VC opportunity in the Valley for companies like his, but chose to bootstrap instead.

“You can take your time and learn your value in the world before you grow,” he says. “If you take the money first, it’s like gas on the fire … you can burn yourself out right there.”

Naperville as Talent Destination Another presumed benefit of operating in the Silicon Valley is access to top talent. However, luring top talent to the Midwest can be a pretty easy sell, according to Sami Ahmed. As the co-founder of Chicago-based Hunt Club, a firm that specializes in recruiting executive talent, Ahmed says one of its techniques is to find candidates with personal ties to the area. IT professionals are often quite receptive to the idea of moving back to a thriving area with familiarity as a bonus. “Illinois is not just the prairie state,” says Ahmed. “It’s a place to come to have an incredible career and grow with the ecosystem.”

Even without direct family ties, the area can be a lure to corporate ladder climbers. One such example is Matvejs Kucerovs, a senior system specialist with Nokia Mobile Networks, who moved from the Silicon Valley with his wife and son to work at the Naperville headquarters last year.

As a native of Latvia, he’s accustomed to the four seasons and is happy that his son will now be able to play hockey outdoors. His overall reason for moving was for the career opportunity, but he’s enjoying the other perks as well. For example, while many Naperville residents routinely complain about the traffic here, Kucerovs said it’s easier to get around as roadways are much less congested than in California.

“Naperville is also a safe, family- friendly place with strong schools,” he says. “And it has a Silicon Valley spirit—people are ready to work for ideas and are always looking toward the future.”

Then there’s the economic incentive. “People are blown away at how far their dollar goes in real estate here,” says Ahmed. “Because the Midwest is affordable, it’s easier to have a home and a family, too.”

Kucerovs agrees, recalling how he knew many people in Silicon Valley with good-paying jobs who still had to earn extra money to have a family or cover the exorbitant housing costs.

Due to its incubator atmosphere, available talent and relatively low cost of living, Naperville has indeed solidified its place within the Silicon Prairie as a tech hub, which remains warm and welcoming to anybody seeking tremendous opportunities for growth. 

Generational Connectivity
*Sidebar in Print Issue

Riding in a self-driving car. Enjoying a Bulls game in virtual reality. Having a remote surgery from a specialist across the country. These are just a few of the amazing experiences 5G can bring to our world.

“The ultimate goal of 5G is to make our lives better,” says Dr. Amitava Ghosh, a leading 5G pioneer and the Nokia fellow and head of Radio Interface Group, Standardization Research, at Nokia Bell Labs. “It will more effectively marry man and machine.”

He explains that 5G, the successive generation of mobile technology, offers vastly superior capabilities to 4G. These include “ultra-low latency,” for simultaneous data transfer and extreme broadband. 5G will support 10,000 times the traffic from 10 to 100 times more devices than 4G.

Thanks to the capabilities of 5G, objects will also be able to better use artificial intelligence to communicate with each other, process data and efficiently organize themselves into their environment and business processes. The 5G cells are smaller, with much higher capacity, and can be installed unobtrusively in inconspicuous places, such as along the I-88 tollway. 

5G also has the power to support the continuing development of applications in A/R (augmented reality) and V/R (virtual reality) to offer imagined—and yet unimagined—potential to every market sector, from automotive to entertainment, manufacturing, health sciences and public safety. For example, in the future, 5G may enable us to collect facial recognition data on everyone passing through the gates of a public event. And with the help of additional gear, we will more easily be able to have “immersive experiences” virtually, without having to be present at the scene. For example, we may someday test drive a car we want to buy from our living room couch, or become part of a video game on our phone as we ride in the car.

Within the next year we will see the big telecommunication providers advertising 5G cell phones featuring Nokia’s technology, but don’t worry: Your 4G service will still work, but it will pale in comparison to 5G.

While big city centers like Chicago will be the first to deploy 5G, Mike Kinnavy, head of Small Cell R&D at Nokia Mobile Networks, is working to make Naperville 5G’s next stop. “We want 5G deployed in the Naperville area so that we can create an environment to attract partners and startups who can build cool applications here,” he says. Nokia is working hard to meet a target date of mid-2019.

In preparation, however, Nokia is involved in negotiations to launch Hub88 (, a five-story, 200,000-square-foot innovation lab in its Naperville campus. Designed for tech startups with big ideas, the hub will offer coworking and lab space, as well as support for budding businesses.

Kinnavy said they are still seeking partners to create a place where 5G can flourish. But whether working in the lab at Hub88 or driving in a car on I-88, Naperville residents will soon appreciate the benefits 5G will bring to the area.