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The Technology Innovation Center's Chairman Explains Why the City Should Support It

Chuck Happ: "The City is, without a doubt, the biggest financial beneficiary."

Editor's note: This is the third part of Christine Wolf's three-part series on . In the first part, . Yesterday, . Today, she explores more of Happ's goals and vision for the incubator space, which became .

So what’s in it for Chuck Happ? Here’s how he describes his involvement:

I obviously am inspired by the idea of a business incubator from the standpoint of business development, economic impact, starting businesses, investment opportunities, developing and promoting innovation, and working with young entrepreneurs helping them realize their visions. I am fortunate to be in a position to offer my time, my expertise, my network of business leaders, network of lenders, appropriate space and additional capital.

Over the course of the first year, we were able to litigate out of all tenant, legal and foreclosure issues associated with 1840 Oak and the Evanston Research Park, build out the appropriate office and lab space, work out of the accumulated debt [Happ says that, when he came to the TIC six years ago, he inherited $600,000 worth of debt], and provide the enhanced infrastructure necessary to provide the needed programming and services offered by a top rated business incubator. Now, nearly 350 companies have passed through the Incubator in 25 years. Graduates employ hundreds of workers throughout Evanston.

But how, I wondered, did Happ end up in this position in the first place? Here’s what he told me:

I have served on many nonprofit boards over the past 22 years, starting with the American Cancer Society and the Mental Health Boards. I was drafted to serve on the Winnetka Village Caucus in 1995 and 1996. I was Winnetka Caucus Chairman in 1997. I then served 3 years as Executive Board Member and Treasurer for the New Trier High School Booster Club as fundraiser.

That success launched me toward election to the New Trier District #203 Board of Education in 1999 and was immediately elected President where I served through 2007. I handled teacher contract negotiations, facility management. I was President during the very critical expansion period when we voted to re-commission and open up the Northfield Campus on Happ Road [it never occurred to me to ask if the street was named after him or vice versa] as the Freshman only Campus Model. Very controversial at first, but has since served as national model for schools across the country struggling with growing enrollment issues. I handled everything that had to do with numbers, dollars and bricks. I was not a curriculum guy.

I am going to assume you are familiar with New Trier High School and its national reputation. When I departed, our state report card had us listed as #1 or #2 in every leading category, except Superintendent Salaries.

And later, Happ told me:

Evanston is a great place to work and worthy of our support. It is deep in resources, the most prominent are the devotion to arts and education, availability of educated and talented workforce, excellent public transportation, proximity to Chicago, and easily accessible by car, train, “L”, bus and boat. I have worked here 37 years and would not have it any other way.

In terms of where The Incubator stands and where TIC sees things going, Happ says:

The annual budget is close to $200,000. We bill out recovery from the client companies for telephone, internet and programming fees. The balance [of] $100,000 needs to be obtained from private (or public sources). Being of the philosophy of private enterprise should be supported by private funding, not reliant on public funding, I supported this incubator for the first four years of my involvement. I am still pursuing some form of additional funding either through alumni contributions or an investment fund, or both. The City is, without a doubt, the biggest financial beneficiary and should be relied upon for some level of support. But that comes with many strings attached, and rightfully so because of the source of the funds as taxpayer dollars.

Additionally, the board anticipated the city’s cutting/elimination of funding. Happ says, “We have gathered a group of devoted, sympathetic people to serve on an Advisory Board to help explore financing alternatives.”

And, after all our discussion about how positive The Incubator appears to be, I announced, “This sounds like a no-brainer to me; so why does the City of Evanston want to limit funding?”

Happ’s response was one of modest relief. “Something you can say we suffer from,” he acknowledges, “is a lack of marketing ourselves. Maybe we’re a little too enabling…”

I likened the situation to the way a somewhat resigned mother puts her children’s needs before her own. She’s so determined to see her young ones succeed that she neglects her own needs and growth; Happ seemed to agree with my analogy.

He also mentioned that the City has referred to him as a landlord, a label he finds completely untrue. Happ says he does not touch any city dollars; instead, he explains, The Incubator companies pay rent to 820 Davis LLC which is managed by Farnsworth-Hill. While Happ owns the buildings utilized by the TIC, he maintains that his focus is to nurture the companies within The Incubator.

“Sometimes,” Happ says, an incubator “company’s rent goes three months late,” often due to financial issues inherent with startups. What The Incubator offers in these situations are flexible terms allowing businesses to continue their upward momentum.

“The companies,” Happ continues, “don’t have to worry about [the] real estate” component of their businesses.

Happ acknowledges that the economic downturn has been an incredible boost to The Incubator. “It is in times like this that the entrepreneur becomes vital to any plan for economic recovery. Our entrepreneurial system in this country is like no other in the world. It really is what the country was founded upon. When the politicians talk about creating jobs, this is the core of what the mean.”

While The Incubator’s business has taken off by providing a nurturing environment for companies and nonprofits to grow exponentially, I’m certain that companies with a model like Megan Kashner’s Benevolent.net — assisting individuals who find themselves in low-income circumstances with a one-time grant — are just as busy (if not more) in times like these.

And while The Incubator in undeniably a business, Happ reports that the companies know it’s far more than that.

“Thankfully, our young entrepreneurs do not just consider me as their landlord," he says. "They know I am available any time of the day. They know I have experienced the same anxiety, frustration, desperation, joy and success that all come with starting a business. Especially if you leave a comfortable job, and you have a small family, but you know this is what you are meant to do. Joining them in their success and knowing you helped is my greatest joy.”

I’d ask anyone considering the value of a venture like The Incubator to look deep into the human side of how it’s run, what it does, and how it affects the lives of Americans beyond one Midwestern town.

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