Meet Chicago Inno’s 50 on Fire nominees

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We recently enjoyed mixing and mingling with the leaders of Chicago’s innovation economy at Chicago Inno’s 50 on Fire nominee photo shoot, sponsored by JLL and hosted at 515 N. State.

150 nominees, including innovators and influencers in tech, education, marketing, food and healthcare, came through to pose and chat with us about what lights their fire. We’ve highlighted seven of their success stories below.

The final 50 on Fire will be revealed at the December 2nd event and our own JLL VP and tech guru Bobby Goodman is on the judging panel. Best of luck to all!

Bill Fienup, President, Catalyze Chicago

CatalyzeWhen are you most on fire?

Every morning when we wake up and come into the office. There’s always some activity or some pressing need, whether it’s helping our members or putting together an event. We’re always doing something exciting.

If you could change one thing about your work space, what would it be?

I wish we had more space to store members’ inventory and product. All of our members are entrepreneurs building a physical product, and they need to put it somewhere. Some cool products companies are working on at Catalyze right now include:

  • Guard Llama: A panic remote fob button that you push when you’re in distress and it sends the police to your location.
  • Outernet: A satellite Internet provider that provides educational content (Khan Academy, Wikipedia, etc.) across 95 percent of the world. It’s like a DVR box to download Internet.
  • Greenlight Planet: Replacing the kerosene lantern with an LED, battery-powered, solar-rechargeable light.

Jessica Tenuta, Co-Founder and Head of Design, Packback


When are you most on fire?

When we’re helping student save money and get more value out of their education. Packback started our junior year of college at Illinois State University and we were the first company to offer one-day e-textbook rentals. We were spending $200 to $500 on books each semester and thought students should only pay for books on the day they need them. Since then we’ve added semester rentals and a Q&A platform that creates study groups on top of the textbooks.

If you could change one thing about your work space, what would it be?

We’ve grown from eight to 18 people very quickly and have both product and sales teams with different requirements—the product team needs quiet time and the ability to work and the sales team needs to be loud, boisterous and high energy. In our current space both teams are in close proximity.

Eric Di Silvestro, Kieran Klaassen and Aksh Gupta, Co-Founders, Occasion

OccasionWhen are you most on fire?

Every day when we enter the office, we’re always pumped up. We play music on Friday mornings when people come in and everyone gets their own theme song. Aksh likes to walk in to Jay Z.

If you could change one thing about your work space, what would it be?

Not the view, that’s incredible from Catapult Chicago’s 24th floor space in River North. As an e-commerce software development company, we probably have an overabundance of monitors, so we would like to make our space less claustrophobic.

Robyn McCloud-Springer, Head of School, Chiaravalle Montessori


When are you most on fire?

When I’m seeing kids doing amazing projects that they’ve come up with on their own. Our students are infants through 8th grade and some of our coolest stuff happens in the elementary and middle school age groups. We help children keep their curiosity while they learn and evolve into the best versions of themselves.

If you could change one thing about your work space, what would it be?

I wouldn’t change anything. Working with CannonDesign, we opened an amazing integrated arts and movement space a couple months ago that’s LEED Platinum and a dream come true. It was a very collaborative process involving our students and our community—anthropologists even visited to see how our kids work.

Dan Pooley, Managing Partner, Finn Partners


When are you most on fire?

Every day on client business, that’s what gets us going. We have to be on fire every day, clients expect that. We never go to sleep.

If you could change one thing about your work space, what would it be?

More openness. We went really open and we’d probably go more open. I know there’s a trend of going back to closed offices, but for us, openness eliminates some of the internal communications that can just slow us down. It creates more 24/7, nonstop learning opportunities. You don’t have to be formally in front of people to ask questions and interact.

Ryan Merholz, Senior Manager, Technical Support, kCura


When are you most on fire?

When we are servicing our customers, delivering awesome software, service, quality and all that cool stuff. We built our whole company on excellent service. It’s what differentiates us from our competitors and it’s what’s helped us grow from a 12-person company when I started to more than 500 people in less than eight years.

If you could change one thing about your work space, what would it be?

When the company was smaller in our old office, everybody rode around on Razor scooters. Our new office is carpeted so it’s harder to get around that way. I’d love to bring Razor scooter tracks into our new office and take it back to the company’s roots.

Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation team, University of Chicago Booth School of Business


When are you most on fire?

When we’re offering students experiential learning opportunities in entrepreneurship (the No. 1 concentration at Booth), venture capital, private equity or search funds. We are also the venture creation engine for the University of Chicago, helping students, faculty and alumni build and execute on business models and connecting them with the region’s innovators. Our New Venture Challenge is the No. 1 university accelerator program in the country and a large percentage of participants have gone on to enjoy huge success—Grubhub, Braintree, Base, Luminate, etc. We are also running global programs in Mexico, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong.

If you could change one thing about your work space, what would it be?

We sit right next to a potential rooftop that’s taunting us. It would be great to use, especially in the summer. We’d also like it to be more student accessible, a place where students can feel like it’s their workspace or incubator of sorts.

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