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7/17/2013 3:41:00 PM
Incubator May Expand to Skokie
By Sam Miller

Evanston’s Forbes-rated technology incubator has decided to spread its influence into Skokie.

The Technology Innovation Center (TIC), founded in 1986, is the original home of Peapod, First Bank and Trust of Evanston, Illinois Superconductor Corporation, Leapfrog Online and Vibes Media. 

TIC, also known as the Incubator, boasts of its having been named the top incubator in 1997 by the National Business Incubator Association, as well as its 2010 recognition by Forbes as one of the Top Ten Incubators Changing the World. Most importantly, TIC is the source of dozens of new high-paying, quality Evanston jobs each year. 

TIC can be seen as a great economic asset to Evanston but it seems that it is seeking greener pastures elsewhere – literally.

“We are self-funding right now,” said Charles Happ, TIC chairman.  Tim Lavengood, TIC’s executive director, said, “We have had support from various sources.” Those sources include the City of Evanston, the State of Illinois, finance institutions and alumni, and at one point the government of Japan.

While in the past TIC received funding from the City, that is no longer the case. “TIC was facing financial challenges in 2009 (as were many organizations) and the City stepped in to provide assistance. The City began working with the TIC more closely and began providing funding again ($100K in 2010, $75K in 2011 and $100K in 2012). The City never intended to be a regular financial supporter of the TIC,” City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said in an email.

Because of the City’s decision to discontinue funding, TIC says it has hit a ceiling. “We are full here. We are almost maximum capacity. We see that the model has worked 27 years. In order to grow and diversify we have to look toward neighboring communities,” said Mr. Happ.

With its own massive technology park and more room to expand their business, the Village of Skokie appears to be looking good to Mr. Happ and Mr. Lavengood. When directly asked if there is a potential funding deal with the Village of Skokie Mr. Happ said, “The village of Skokie has been very welcoming and I think they realize the value of an incubator to their economic development.”

As for receiving another grant from the City of Evanston, Mr. Lavengood says he feels that “basic research is probably the biggest business in this town and so there is tremendous leverage that can be had and that technology start-ups should be the foundation of economic development in Evanston. If we can convince the City Council and the City staff of that, then I think there is a good chance that we could go forward.”

Apparently, the City feels differently. “No.  It became clear last year that the TIC was capable of thriving without a public subsidy,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said on the subject of further City funding of TIC.

With that off the table, it is possible that in the near future Evanston may not be able to compete with Skokie for the economic asset of hosting TIC, which might mean losing a reliable stream of new businesses into the community as well as consistent local job creation.

For now the City sees the expansion as a positive. “The expansion into Skokie demonstrates the strength and viability of the TIC.  The City of Evanston is proud that we stepped in with financial support for three years to allow the TIC to survive and now continue to thrive.  This is a benefit for the economy of Evanston, Skokie and the entire region,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said.

Both Mr. Happ and Mr. Lavengood assured the RoundTable that Evanston will not be forsaken, and that this is only an expansion.  They have no plans to move the entire operation. 

“We have attracted companies from Dayton Ohio, Bangalore, India, Lisle, Illinois, and Ireland and continue to attract innovative hi-tech companies into town. We have documented over 61 new full-time high-paying, quality jobs in 2012 and are now exceeding that pace for this year,” Mr. Happ said.

Currently TIC is still looking for a building to use as a site of operations in Skokie. Only time will tell if this expansion will benefit Evanston.

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