“We’ve got to find our own story, leverage our own strengths, and be Chicago about this.”
“What I’ve really specialized in is working on big, enterprise, core information technology problems and solving them. And what I’ve found is that there are inherent advantages to doing that here in Chicago,” says Chris Gladwin, founder and CEO of Ocient, a startup that’s building a platform for analyzing massive datasets.
How massive, exactly? On the scale of exabytes –– which, for context, is mind-blowingly gigantic. According to the data scientists at UC Berkeley, it would be the equivalent of the entire Netflix catalog streamed more than 3,000 times. All the words ever spoken by mankind would equal five exabytes.
Chris knows how to go big. His previous company, Cleversafe, revolutionized data storage, racking up more than 350 patents. “According to IEEE, we had the 10th most powerful patent portfolio of any company in the world,” says Chris. “And the other nine were by far larger – Apple, Google … and that’s because we had this team of people that were truly elite level in their skill and had been at it for a long time.”
In 2015, IBM acquired Cleversafe for $1.3 billion – one of Chicago’s biggest-ever tech exits. And because Chris set up a generous equity structure, the deal minted 80 new millionaires.
His next move was to pay it forward, donating $7.6 million to the computer science program at Illinois Tech, which he calls “the most transformative school in Illinois,” in terms of its socioeconomic impact.
Now, as co-chair of the P33 Initiative (along with former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker), he’s working to position Chicago as the nation’s next big tech hub. P33’s stated mission is to “reclaim the city’s position as the ‘World’s Brightest Spot’ for technological discovery and development,” –– a nickname we earned during the 1933 World’s Fair –– by 2033, Chicago’s bicentennial.
“Transforming technology in Chicago to top-tier, world class status is not a quality problem,” he says.
“There’s a lot of other companies here that have demonstrated – in the most competitive markets, with the most talented people – they’re having success. Chicago currently has the highest venture capital returns of any region in the United States. It works. The only question now is, can we do more of that?”
One of the things I admire most about Chris is that he thinks big. He’s working on huge, thorny problems, and is willing to invest something many tech companies don’t: time.
“The average turnover of employees at the 10 largest tech companies in the United States is currently about 18 months. And that’s fine if your project’s nine months long. But not if it’s five to 10 years long,” says Chris.
It’s possible to recruit and retain talent here for a number of reasons –– Chicago is much more affordable than Silicon Valley, for instance –– but also for a few surprising reasons, like the fact that we’re the most educated big city in the United States, by percent of college graduates. We boast the second-highest number of computer science majors, as well. Compiling facts like that was the first agenda item for P33.
“Part of what we need to do is to begin to communicate those facts,” he says.
Why did Chris build his businesses here? “We’re not in Chicago because we like it,” he says. (Though, for the record, he does seem to like it a lot)!
“We’re in Chicago because we have a business advantage. As a result, at Cleversafe, at Ocient, in order to exploit that advantage, we pick problems that need hundreds of person years of engineering.”
Years-long projects also require patience. Cleversafe didn’t even turn a profit until its sixth year. But as those 80 millionaires will tell you, it pays off.
With Ocient, Chris is capitalizing on both the success of Cleversafe and the problems it brought to light.
“It really came out of the work I did there, selling data storage systems to the largest data-storing organizations on the planet. They began to identify that in addition to data stores, they needed the ability to analyze data at a scale for which they could find no available solution,” he says.
“That made it clear there was a need. So we’ve been working on that. It’s a problem that’s been known for decades in computer science and other things and it just hasn’t been solvable, even though billions of dollars have tried.”
Though the details are under wraps, Chris is quietly confident that Ocient has the solution. “We figured out how to do it,” he says. “It’s a big project, hundreds of person-years of development. But we’re, we’re working through it and so far it looks really good.”
To my mind, Chris is one of the few successful repeat founders globally –– nationally, for sure, who refers to his work as “projects” and problems to be solved, rather than a business with a product to bring to market. He’s a CEO with the soul of an architect.
It’s fitting, then, that he sees P33’s work as parallel with the Burnham Plan, architect and proto-city planner Daniel Burnham’s hugely influential 1909 plan for Chicago.
“What we’re not trying to do at P33 is to get a bunch of people together and tell everyone else what to do. There’s all kinds of reasons why that’s a bad idea,” Chris says.
“One of the new ideas in the Burnham Plan was that we should have parks in cities. It was a new idea then. The plan doesn’t say where every park goes or when to build them. It says, here’s how they should be incorporated. That allowed a thousand good decisions to get made over the coming decades.”
That’s the kind of impact, says Chris, that P33 aims to have. “We’ll identify areas of focus and priority, and then organizations and people within the community can make decisions that fit into that, and are coordinated, because there’s a set of guidelines, like blueprints.”
Chris notes that Chicago’s renaissance must be intentional, and uniquely our own. “We’ve studied how other cities have had success, and there’s no one template. To a great degree how Silicon Valley and Boston got there was through federal government funding, post-World War II, into basic research. Austin’s got a different story. We’ve got to find our own story, leverage our own strengths, and be Chicago about this. We have so many assets. We not only could be doing better, we should be doing better. And that’s what we’re going to work on.”