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By Roger Crockett Chicago rarely comes up in discussions of this country's tech meccas. It's no Silicon Valley, and it's sometimes an afterthought to up-and-comers like Denver, Dallas, and Austin, Tex.
But don't tell that to aircraft manufacturer Boeing. In November, a few months after the aerospace giant picked Chicago (over Denver and Dallas) as its worldwide headquarters, more than 1,000 raucous representatives of Chicago tech elite crammed into a hotel ballroom to welcome Boeing to its new home. Even Illinois Governor George Ryan showed up. "This event exceeded my expectations," says David O. Swain, Boeing's chief technology officer.
Who pulled together this vast showing of Chi-town's tech world? It was David C. Jacobson, an attorney specializing in e-commerce for the law firm Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal. And over the past two years, he has ignited a spark in a local tech scene desperate to catch fire. A tireless worker with an infectious smile and disarming charm, Jacobson's fuel has been monthly networking events called First Tuesdays. These cocktail-hour gatherings have become Chicago's roaming Il Fornaio -- the famed Silicon Valley restaurant where tech entrepreneurs, financiers, and corporate execs gather to brainstorm ideas and strike deals.
THE BROWSER'S BIRTHPLACE. Jacobson's efforts have helped galvanize Chicago's once-languid tech landscape. The city has a large tech workforce of 347,100 workers in more than 7,100 companies. But they're mainly engineers and support staffers that labor behind the scenes at companies like Kraft and Sears. Aside from Motorola, Chicago is recognized more for the tech companies it has lost than those it has attracted.
The Web browser was born in Illinois but made its name elsewhere. Amid the telecom consolidation fever of the late 90s, regional bell Ameritech was gobbled up by SBC Communications. And though Motorola stood for years as the king of wireless, it failed to spawn new ventures that could make Chicago the epicenter of that promising industry.
It was against that backdrop in 1999, that Jacobson discovered First Tuesdays. The monthly events originated in London in 1998 as informal gatherings and soon became forums held the first Tuesday of each month for Britain's eager dot-com types. Jacobson, 50, read an article describing how the events were designed to give Londoners what Silicon Valley had -- an esprit de corps around technology. He got to thinking that the networking going on in London pubs would be every bit the draw among Chicago skyscrapers.
WILD SUCCESS. So Jacobson made inquiries into how First Tuesday might create a Chicago chapter. In the fall of 1999, forum CEO Reade Fahs agreed to meet Jacobson at a hotel bar near the Cincinnati airport, and between sips of cheap beer, Jacobson agreed to lead a Chicago affiliate of the nonprofit organization.
What no one knew was how big Chicago's First Tuesdays would become. The initial program in April, 2000, at a Chicago nightclub drew several hundred people. Month after month the gatherings continued to attract hundreds of techies who considered the event the place to be. Jacobson spends 25 hours a week securing sponsors such as McKinsey, Sprint E-solutions, and tech consultant DiamondCluster, which pay anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 to host the events at lavish Chicago hotels. The success in Chicago convinced First Tuesday's European founders to let Jacobson help organize the forums in New York, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, St. Louis, and Atlanta.
Don't let Jacobson's attorney shingle fool you. He displays a mix of entrepreneurial knowhow and evangelistic zeal rare to lawyers. He eschews suits and ties, preferring black t-shirts and mock turtlenecks under a sport coat. His beard is always four days old, as if he's been up late developing software code. And he never has a conversation without bringing up the topic of improving technology in Chicago. "I don't have a personal agenda here," Jacobson says. "Honest to god, I'm just trying to do what I think is a good thing to do."
MOBILE WEDNESDAY. Jacobson is still trying. Once dot-com fever subsided and attendance at First Tuesdays slowed, he didn't pack it in and return to his law office. Instead, Jacobson called a group of tech execs and political leaders together to brainstorm the next step. Jacobson advised his First Tuesday cohorts that Chicago needed to take advantage of the wireless expertise in its backyard, namely Motorola. After a series of meetings the group came up with a new program called Mobile Wednesday, offering seminars on the future of wireless technology.
"The dot-com flame started to flicker for a bit, and David didn't give up," says Michael Krauss, a partner at consultant DiamondCluster. "Like a wise entrepreneur, he realized his initial business might be waning and he migrated toward another."
Jacobson wants to make sure Chicago doesn't miss opportunities to make the city the center of tomorrow's technologies. He's set to begin a series of forums this year based on how traditional companies put the Internet to work in their business processes. He's convinced that Chicago's stable of old-line companies, such as Kraft, Abbott, United, and Boeing, can bring notoriety to the city by helping define this era.
TINY THURSDAY? The next project: Pulling together a group of big thinkers to plan ways that Chicago can leverage its expertise in nanotechnology to emerge as the hotbed of that budding sector. Nanotech is the manipulation of matter at the atomic level aimed at creating stronger, better materials -- from flat-panel monitors with brighter screens to lightweight, bulletproof clothes. The Chicago area's Northwestern University and the University of Chicago's Argonne National Laboratory are among the country's preeminent nanotech researchers.
At a Northwestern seminar last spring, Jacobson experienced an epiphany when he listened to experts discuss applications. "It must have been like being in Silicon Valley in the early '70s when people were talking about applications for semiconductors," he beams. "I'd like us to be perceived as the leader." With Jacobson working behind the scenes, the thought of Chicago as a tech mecca might not be so farfetched. Crockett covers technology for BusinessWeek in Chicago