The evening started off loud – and by that, I’m referring to the line of picketers outside Harris Theatre waiting for Governor Quinn to arrive. But, beyond the sea of green and white picket signs, Chicago Innovation Awards guests were welcomed with a smile. And so began one of the biggest nights of the year for Chicago’s “high tech, low tech, no tech” and innovation community. Around 1,500 people attended the annual event yesterday evening, starting with an hour-and-a-half-long cocktail reception in the neon lit hallways of the venue. There were several packed floors full of guests chasing the less-than-flattering lighting down with glasses of wine and bottles of Vitamin Water.

The event began promptly at 7 p.m. with a quick welcome from Luke Tanen, Director of Chicago Innovation Awards, who introduced Co-Founders Tom Kuczmarski and Dan Miller. Perhaps one of the highlights of the evening (at least for me) was watching Kuczmarski and Miller attempt a dance routine with Chicago’s FootworKINGz, an impressive footwork dance crew who starred on America’s Got Talent and toured with Madonna. There is nothing better than humble co-founders who aren’t afraid to get out of their comfort zones, even for the sake of entertainment.

After the opening dance routine, guests listened to speeches from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn, who both talked about some of their major business-related political accomplishments, including a reduction in the number of required licenses that Chicago-based businesses are required to have. The idea: that the city of Chicago is breaking down barriers to entry, encouraging more businesses to start and flourish here.

The night concluded with a keynote speech from Groupon Founder and CEO Andrew Mason, and an introduction of the winners of this year’s Chicago Innovation Awards. They were (in alphabetical order):

  • BrightTag – A digital company that helps clients with tag management (and even remove third-party tags completely). They improve clients’ ability to leverage data and connect various websites to digital marketing and analytics services.
  • Catamaran – They offer a competitive alternative to the “status quo in pharmacy benefit management.” Their enhanced benefits are saving the healthcare industry billions of dollars, and Catamaran is keeping patients happy while doing it.
  • Champion Medical Technologies – An applied information technology company that is dedicated to shifting how the medical industry tracks human tissue grafts, as well as metal or synthetic implants. The company created a software product called RecallConnect, which automatically alerts doctors and nurses about recalled medical devices, along with a list of any patients they have that are currently using those same devices.
  • Coyote Logistics – A third party logistics company. Coyote pinpoints and leverages the most efficient mode of transportation for every shipment it processes. According to their website, last year, Coyote “eliminated 5.5 million empty miles from our highways – which equates to 10,000 tons of carbon that did not enter the atmosphere.” They’re planning to double that number by the end of 2012. Bonus: this is probably the company with the raddest homepage headline: “When we say we are going to do it, we will get it done, no excuses.”
  • Cummins Allison Corporation – a leading global provider (and the only U.S.-based manufacturer) of currency counters, sorters and scanners, check deposit and casino ticket processing machines, and coin sorter/counting solutions. They serve the government, as well as customers in the financial, retail, vending, and gmaing industries.
  • Feeding America – The nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, who’s food bank network members supply food to more than 37 million Americans every year, including 14 million children – many through school-based food pantries.
  • Littelfuse – The company’s products exist in virtually every market that uses electrical energy, including: commercial vehicles, automobiles, industrial equipment, and consumer electronics. They won an innovation award for a power surge protector created for outdoor LED lighting and solar power apps that are susceptible to lightning strikes and other kinds of power surges.
  • Medline – a medical supplies company that created something called BioMask, an antimicrobiral face mask that kills flu viruses on contact.
  • OptionsCity Software – A financial tech company that produced a software program called Metro, an end-to-end electronic market making and trading platform. OptionsCity also created another software program called Freeway, a “low-latency, server-based algorithmic trading platform designed for deploying user-built multi-asset strategies.”
  • Polybrite International – An innovative global lighting technology company that develops top notch LED lighting systems, and brings the energy, environmental, and economic advantages of LED technology to the marketplace. They developed a light bulb called Borealis that glows for 50,000 hours – almost twice as long as the average LED bulb.
  • SMS Assist – A nationwide maintenance company that manages and provides periodic services, such as landscaping, snow removal, floor cleaning, and HVAC maintenance to facilities around the country. They do maintenance work at over 40,000 different client sites.

In his speech earlier on in the evening, Mayor Emanuel noted that, in addition to the Innovation Awards, “tonight is a busy night. I don’t know whether to watch the debate or the Bears game.” Maybe next year we can solve that problem and just invite the President and the Chicago Bears to the Chicago Innovation Awards. After all, it’ll be the 12th annual celebration of Chicago’s top innovators. If the rest of the country hasn’t properly recognized Chicago as a flourishing hub for innovation and entrepreneurship yet, it certainly will soon.