Category: Entrepreneurship

Earliest of TechNexus collaborators, OK Labs has been acquired by General Dynamics

Steve Subar launched and grew Open Kernel Labs from within Chicago’s TechNexus incubator over the past five years, becoming only the second of what has now been more than 170 young companies to grow in the ecosystem. While growing at TechNexus, Steve led OK Labs to more than 50 employees, through millions of dollars in capital raises, and now to a successful exit to General Dynamics (NYSE: GD), a $32 billion aerospace and defense company.

At TechNexus we take pride in the success of the companies that collaborate in our incubator, but also companies that represent what the Chicago tech scene is all about – hard-nosed innovation and building scalable businesses.

OK Labs recognized the immense potential of mobile virtualization. Before the acquisition, OK Labs had deployed its software on more than 1.6 billion devices. Only a handful of other companies can say that, and OK Labs is the youngest to have reached that milestone.

This sort of innovation and alignment between new ventures and industry leading corporations is exactly the focus of TechNexus — and where much of our time has been directed. We are all proud of OK Labs evolution. Congratulations to Steve and the entire team at OK Labs! We look forward to supporting your transition as well as your future contributions to General Dynamics.

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Play nice together, kiddos

Nice Q&A with Jessica Stillman from GigaOM on TechNexus and curating collaboration between startups and leading corporations:

When you’re young, it’s natural to think of grown ups as party-spoiling bores. But wait a few years until you’re a fellow adult and that uncool elder brother or once sedate seeming older cousin suddenly becomes fascinating and fun loving. Adults generally aren’t stodgy to other adults.


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Let’s get to work…

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life — It goes on” — Robert Frost

My family is the most important thing in my life. No business, association, school, incubator or other endeavor in which I’m involved comes close. We’ve now lost two cornerstones of our family at an all too young age, but life does go on. It especially goes on for two young girls whose futures remain bright despite the sadness in their past.

I took off most of the past two months from work and community projects to support my family.

But I’m returning next week, with a new agenda and a renewed commitment to pursuits that matter most. Life is — clearly — too short to be timid, too short to avoid risk, too short to lack boldness, and too damn short to care what critics may say.


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Trademarks matter, and this is exactly why they exist

Today Timelines Inc., a growing young company based inside of Chicago’s TechNexus, filed a trademark infringement suit against Facebook. Timelines has operated, a site that allows people to post pictures and notes to tell the story of their lives and the story of events around them. They have a registered trademark, and even had been setup and enjoyed by users and fans of the site. The folks at Timelines Inc invested five years and $3m building their product and brand.

Facebook has decided to call their new, enhanced profile feature (rolling out now, and over the coming weeks to all users) a “Timeline”. Not only does this concept and trademark name pretty directly conflict with the site’s own intellectual property, Facebook was so egregious about taking over the name that they even redirected to their new product (just seizing control away from tiny Timelines Inc without warning or notice). At the top of, they still have a link to their old fan page, which Facebook hijacked and now uses to promote their new Timelines feature.

This is a case of Goliath and David, with the world’s largest social network not just rolling out a new feature that’s remarkably similar, but intentionally doing so in a way that threatens the very existence of another company. Sometimes intellectual property lawsuits in the tech industry can seem a little capricious… but this case is very clearly about the confusion caused by a giant company throwing their weight around with no regard for the small entrepreneur. If not for this lawsuit, Facebook would have steamrolled over this little company, and probably succeed at erasing it’s very existence. Ideas matter, intellectual property is an asset, and trademarks have to mean something, even to the big guys.

TechCrunch and many other national outlets are now covering the story.

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Securing Trade Secrets in a New First-to-File Patent Process

The tech industry has a paramount interest in patents and protecting intellectual property, and it’s worth a review of the recent, rather historical, changes to patent law.

Pres. Obama signed The America Invents Act, AIA, on Sept. 16, 2011, at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. Three major provisions of AIA significantly change the United States patent process.

AIA allows direct funding of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Congress will assign a budget for the office, but the patent fees will be placed in escrow and that money can be released when it exceeds the allocation.

This new law sets up a review process for patent applications. Third parties may question the validity of a patent for nine months after issuance.

The most important change, however, is “first-to-file,” which makes the U.S system similar to other nations and eliminates “first-to-invent.”

Different parties of interest have presented arguments pro and con about this legislation. Many commenters have questioned the effects on shop, garage and backyard innovators. One widely claimed drawback facing independent, individual inventors is their lack of funds to complete the “reduction to practice” requirements of patent law. A functional operation of the patent, beyond the conceptual state, must be demonstrated to show either actual or constructive practice, which are legal “terms of art.” This often requires capital funding, and disclosure may be necessary to convince lenders or investors.

Under first-to-invent, an inventor could prove with good documentation that a practical invention had existed before a patent thief filed. With first-to-file, the process can be hi-jacked any time. A co-worker, relative, employee, investor, etc., may find opportunities to seize a concept and patent it first, especially if that person can access quicker funding or superior developmental facilities in order to complete the reduction to practice. This burdens inventors with the need to protect ideas from all potential patent thieves.

Internal and external security for patentable concepts now require stricter controls by inventors. The following six suggestions should matter to a tech entrepreneur or company with any degree of protected intellectual property:

  1. Non-disclosure agreements must be re-written by legal counsel. Similar documents, such as confidentiality, proprietary information and secrecy agreements should be re-considered now, and all such contracts must be mutual. Employee and partnership forms require immediate updates.
  2. A “need to know” basis must be uniformly imposed to restrict access to information by non-key personnel.
  3. Different forms and types of knowledge about patentable concepts should be kept in separate storage, even on different computers. Drawings should be in one location, written descriptions in another. Working models must be separate from documents. All information technology resources must be password protected, isolated, and physically locked down.
  4. Loose lips may sink patentable ships. Idle discussions, any chatter, about concepts must stop.
  5. Presentations at meetings with venture capital people or bankers, suppliers, sub-contractors, etc., should proceed from a carefully controlled hierarchy of how much and what types of information to disclose. Presence of expert legal counsel is highly advisable.
  6. First-to-file has no legal precedent in U.S. courts, so do not “trust” outside parties. Protect all information.

Be cautious and file as soon as practical. And if you need help understanding the value of your patents and intellectual property, there are no better experts than OceanTomo, based here in Chicago.

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The future voices of ChiTech Academy

I just returned from a visit to Chicago Tech Academy and my first visit with an assembly of the 150 new freshmen… and I am inspired! This third class of students seems to be the most inquisitive, the most engaged and the most eager bunch of students I’ve met at the new high school.

The reputation of ChiTech after the first two years and a targeted recruiting effort to find great potential students attracted a motivated group of kids. They were eager to learn about internships and mentors and careers they might enjoy; they had many questions about entrepreneurship and where the ideas and confidence come from to start companies. These new students asked about programming languages and video game design, about field trips they might take to local tech companies and about the people they might meet. They asked about using technology if they became doctors or architects.

I spoke to them about the power of voice to ideas. I talked about the voice of Bill Gates 30 years ago in defining the personal computer revolution; about the voices of engineers who pushed to interconnect computers in real-time, and of Andreessen and other college kids who designed the web browser not far from Chicago. I admired the voice of Steve Jobs as he introduced the iPad, and of Zuckerberg when he weaved a social network through hundreds of millions of people around the world.

We spoke with the students about the power of their own unique voice, and how it someday could be used to express ideas, explain solutions and inspire. We talked about the breakneck speed at which technology has given voice to a planet full of people, and how technology can flatten the world to bring people together, bound by common humanity instead of divided by differences. We talked about how now, like no time in history, they have an opportunity for their voice to be heard, and it may be because of experiences and lessons learned at Chicago Tech Academy.

This conversation about voice– to ideas, to inspiration, to expectations of themselves – begins a conversation that I hope will last through high school and beyond. I hope it will continue as the students meet mentors from Chicago’s tech community, as they grow and mature and begin to look beyond their current circumstance. It’s an innovative approach, to think of a ChiTech education as an extended conversation between disadvantaged students and an engaged community willing to share advantages… after three years, we’re seeing some very inspiring results… you can hear it in their voices.

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Startup Spotlight: Hireology, SpotHero and Power2Switch

Showing some love for a few young tech companies growing in Chicago.

Chicago-Based Websites Part of Local Technology Business Boom: Terry Howerton: helps users switch electricity providers in less than 10 minutes and save up to 30 percent on electric cost. helps small and medium size businesses figure out what kind of questions to ask interviewees to find the right people to hire. allows drivers to reserve parking spaces in Chicago neighborhoods like Wrigleyville during a game. Also, people who own spaces can post them on this site for drivers to find.

A couple of these companies have grown from inside TechNexus.


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Lessons from Branson’s “Business Stripped Bare”

h/t to 37Signals for passing along Derek Sivers’ notes on “Business Stripped Bare” by Richard Branson. Some that resonated with me:

Money’s only interesting for what it lets you do.

I had never been interested in being “in business”. I’ve been interested in creating things.

Business is not about formality, or winning, or the bottom line, or profit, or trade, or commerce, or any of the things the business books tell you it’s about. Business is what concerns us. If you care about something enough to do something about it, you’re in business.

Would I have been happy without my successes in business? I’d like to think so. But again, it depends on what you mean by business. Would I have been happy had I not found concerns to absorb me and fascinate me and engage me every minute of my life? No, absolutely not, I’d be as miserable as sin.

If you’re an entrepreneur, you need to find a manager. Then you should move on, enjoy yourself and then set up your next enterprise.

The first law of entrepreneurial business: there is no reverse gear. No one in business can unmake anything, any more than a band can unmake a song.

Inspire your people to think like entrepreneurs, and whatever you do, treat them like adults. The hardest taskmaster of all is a person’s own conscience, so the more responsibility you give people, the better they will work for you.

Engage your emotions at work. Your instincts and emotions are there to help you. They are there to make things easier. For me, business is a ‘gut feeling’, and if it ever ceased to be so, I think I would give it up tomorrow. By ‘gut feeling’, I mean that I believe I’ve developed a natural aptitude, tempered by huge amounts of experience, that tends to point me in the right direction.

Innovation is what you get when you capitalise on luck, when you get up from behind your desk and go and see where ideas and people lead you.

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