Chicago’s one of the most diversified economies in the world, with no single industry employing more than 14% of the workforce. And this diversity extends to the city’s innovation economy, with an eclectic mix of startups, categories, entrepreneurs, enterprise tech companies, STEM organizations, universities, and more making up the ecosystem.

That’s why we host 50 on Fire.

50 is our annual awards show, celebrating the individuals and organizations that are heating up Chicago across a variety of industries. And this isn’t your standard ranking or list, where the nominees are compiled simply by total revenue, or number of employees, or year-over-year growth. Those lists are great, but they only capture one element of the ecosystem. What about the professor training the city’s entrepreneurs of tomorrow? Or the civic organization teaching tech to under-served communities? Or the angel who’s sourced 1,000 deals in 9 months? Or the UX firm that’s actually behind some of the city’s fastest-growing companies?

So, 50 is a reflection of Chicago’s ecosystem at large – a collection of people and organization in a number of different roles, stages, and categories – that are, for lack of a better term, on fire. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire city to build an innovation. Let’s spotlight everyone involved in the build.

Below are the 150 finalists for this year’s event, broken up into 7 categories – B2B, B2C, Edu, Civic, Lifestyle, Marketing/Advertising/Design/Development/, and Supporters. We received hundreds of amazing nominations and whittling the list down to 150 was damn near impossible. Each finalist has a line or two about themselves and/or their growth, pulled right from its submission. We’ve also included a blurb from several nominations and we’ll have a post on the site this week with even more excerpts, as well as a breakdown on our selection process.

Finally, here’s what happens next with 50. Next week, we’ll host a 3-day photo shoot with every finalist. We then send a complete judging packet to a group of 20/25 influencers, thought-leaders, and past winners to select their top third in each category. (We’ll be announcing the judges on Monday, along with a November ‘Meet the Judges’ meetup). Then, over the next month, we cut together a 15-minute video of the winners that’s revealed LIVE at 50 on Fire. (Early Birds tickets are on sale; grab them now!) Be sure to take a look at last year’s video for an idea of what to expect.

Now, without further ado, let’s get to it…


Yes, Chicago tech is a diverse ecosystem, but there’s also a clear lion in the jungle and it’s B2B, which is why the below category has more nominees, nearly 40, than every other.

Jeremie Bacon
  • Ben Fornell, CEO & Founder, Shurpa Delivery | Uses the power of technology and logistics to solve the problem of missed or unsecure package deliveries
  • Braintree | In 3 years, transactions on the payments platform have grown more than 25x
  • Chris Campbell, Founder + CEO of ReviewTrackers | Spearheaded the company’s 100x growth since ReviewTrackers’ launch
  • CloudCraze | This month, won the Salesforce Partner Innovation Award at Dreamforce
  • Craig Vodnik, co-founder, Cleverbridge | Outside of Cleverbridge, serves as a mentor for entrepreneurs at 1871, Junto Institute, UIUC, and Catapult
  • Drivin | A tool for car dealerships to sell, source and acquire vehicles for their lots
  • Ensono | A “47-year-old startup,” added $33M in new revenue over the last 10 months
  • Flexera Software | Launched eight major products over the last year
  • FourKites | Since May, 2015, has gone from 3 to 38 full-time employees, with plans to add 100 more in the coming year
  • InContext Solutions | A local leader in VR, building virtual reality solutions for retail
  • Hireology | Raised $12M in June and now has over 3,000 businesses. Was 98th on the Inc 5000
  • Jammber | Slack Meets Paypal for the Music Industry
  • Jason Weingarten, CEO, Yello | Yello has seen 70% growth in annual recurring revenue, compared with the same period in 2015
  • Jeremie Bacon, CEO, Synap | Launched Synap out of beta and raised over $125k for local tech-focused non-profits through Chicago Tech Rocks
  • Joseph DeCosmo, Chief Analytics Officer, Enova International and Enova Decisions | A renowned leader in the predictive analytics and statistics spaces
  • Label Insight | Raised $10M in February to bring transparency to the food industry
  • Lucas Roh, CEO, BigstepPrior to Bigstep, Roh sold his company, Hostway, for $200M.
  • Madan Nagaldinne, Chief People Officer, ContextMediaPopularizing the use of analytics to drive people decision
  • Marc Gyongyosi, Founder & CEO, IFM Technologies | The maker of ‘Intelligent Flying Machines,’ IFM is one of Chicago Inno’s local drone companies to watch
  • Mary Beth Wynn, VP of People, Jellyvision | Adding between .5-1% of all U.S. practices to its membership every month
  • Brandless | The brand experience firm planned and executed VentureFWD in 15 days
  • NuCurrent | A leader in wireless technology. 40% of the team has PHDs
  • OfficeLuv | 200+ clients in just over a year’s time
  • Payline Data | No. 208 in Inc 5000, No. 15 in financial services industry, No. 8 in Chicago
  • Page VaultServing hundreds of subscription clients and launching brand protection services for large enterprises
  • Peanut Butter | Helping companies help their employees repay their student loans
  • Procured Health | Closed $10M Series B in June
  • Realync | A real-time video platform for real estate companies, Realync raised $1.1M in October
  • Ross Manire, CEO, ExteNet  | Leading one of Chicago’s unicorns
  • SiNode SystemsAwarded $4M from the U.S. Department of Transportation and leading auto-makers to develop its technology for electric vehicles
  • Sridhar (Sri) Deivasigamani, CEO Intellihot | With the number of units Intellihot has sold, they have saved the planet 41 million pounds of CO2
  • SMS Assist | Raised $150M this summer, becoming Chicago’s latest unicorn
  • Tock | In a year, the platform has processed over $30 million and sat half a million diners
  • Trading Technologies | Was awarded 42 new patents in 2015, giving it the largest patent portfolio in electronic trading
  • UrbanBound | Raised $8.5M Series B in April


Jeremie Bacon is on fire in 2016 for a handful of reasons. First, his startup, Synap, a CRM for post-sales relationship management, came out of beta into public release in Q3, and is finalizing a follow-on round of venture funding to fuel growth. Second, he successfully launched a new non-profit program, Chicago Tech Rocks, which drew hundreds of participants, sponsorship from iconic tech companies in Chicago, and raised more than $125k for local organizations focused on tech talent development. Third, he co-founded and launched another software company which is in stealth mode. Fourth, he is coach and mentor to Vector Robotics, a high school robotics team which placed 16th in international competition at NASA this summer.


Though Chicago has been called the country’s new B2B Boomtown, it’s also spurting a number of fast-growing consumer-focused businesses.

Dima Elissa

Here are some of the people and companies behind the B2C revival…

  • AptAmigo | A graduate of the Polsky accelerator, the platform helps Chicagoans find their perfect apartment and neighborhood
  • Badal Shah, CEO & Co-Founder, TurboAppeal | The company has processed over 100k appeals in first year
  • Brad’s Deals | Launched an in-house incubator for women-funded startups
  • Dima Elissa, CEO, Founder VisMed-3D | Building an accelerator to drive STEM for girls and women seeking healthcare careers
  • divvyDOSE | Since launch in July, 2015, have acquired over 10,000 customers
  • Guard Llama | To date, there are 2,000+ people now able to access police assistance with the push of a button
  • Jio | Acquired 10k+ pre-orders for its flagship product, Jiobit, in September
  • M1 Finance | Came out of stealth in September with $9M in funding
  • Mystery Tackle Box | The #1 rated subscription box for fishing enthusiasts
  • Opternative | Over 100,000 signups in first year of launch
  • Pangea | Found a disruptive way to make money transfer more convenient, cost-effective, and secure
  • ParkWhiz | Raised a $24M Series C earlier this year
  • ParqEx: The Airbnb for parking
  • Reverb | Founded in 2013, Reverb is already the most visited music gear website in the world, with more than 8M monthly visitors
  • SpotHero | In 2016, grew headcount over 40% to 123 employees
  • Varsity Views | Leverages a network of freelance photographers to cover high school sports games across the country


Dima Elissa is a self-directed serial entrepreneur bridging her passions across technology, diversity & inclusion, and healthcare. She holds numerous accolades, including her Chicago venture VisMed3D, a biomedical 3D technology company, printing patient specific anatomies for complex surgeries and education. Most recently, she was named as the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) tech and innovation lead to bring about an accelerator to deliver STEM programming for youth and women seeking healthcare careers, as well as to commercialize business innovations within medicine.


One of the Chicago ecosystem’s strongest characteristics is its passionate, thriving civic tech community, from STEM-focused organizations to

Jimmy Odom

data-driven non-profits

  • 2Blades Foundation | Revolutionizing agriculture by developing new solutions for diseases that cause significant food losses
  • A.D. Sean Lewis, Public Sector Analyst, City of Chicago Independent Police Review Authority | Accepted into the New Leaders Council Chicago 2016 cohort, an all-around advocate for making Chicago a better city
  • BallotReady | In 2016, launched in 25 states
  • Blue1647 | Expanded into Gary, Indiana, St. Louis, Compton, and Haiti
  • Center for Data Science and Public Policy | In 4 years, the program has trained 168 fellows and completed 50 projects
  • Timshel| Using its Groundwork platform, USA for UNHCR went from very few to hundreds of thousands of supporters in under 6 months
  • Illinois Science & Technology Coalition and Institute | Reached 1,200 students at 26 high schools, are projecting for 2,000+ students at 35+ high schools in 2016-17
  • The Impact Lab | Helped drive forward the White House’s Workforce Data Initiative
  • Jimmy Odom, Intersect Illinois | Launched Illinois’ pilot minority entrepreneurship program, Advancing the Development of Minority Entrepreneurship (ADME)
  • Luna Lights | Developing products that keep older adults happy and healthy
  • Municipal | Helps make community planning and design more accessible to everyone
  • Prana Diabetes | The startup has partnered with the ADA to tackle the growth of diabetes
  • Regroup Therapy | The provider of on-demand virtual mental health consultations
  • re:work training | Has gone from idea to 501(c)3 in 8 months
  • Sandee Kastrul, President & Co-Founder, i.c.stars | i.c. stars helps young adults of color jumpstart their careers and increase their earnings by more than 400%
  • Sonja Marziano Project Coordinator, Smart Chicago Collaborative | Leads effort to help civic organizations leverage the community to test their apps
  • Terri Brax, ?Founder of TeacherCare and Women Tech Founders (WTF) | WTF creates economic empowerment for women and girls
  • UI LABS | 50: number of advanced manufacturing projects in various stages being undertaken by DMDII


The Center for Data Science and Public Policy has led the way on innovative uses of data to improve policing, education, public health, and the environment. Through its Data Science for Social Good summer fellowship, the center trains 42 fellows a year on how to work with non-profits and government agencies on data-driven projects to improve cities, schools, international development, and more. Their work has recently been featured in The Economist, Forbes, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and many other publications.


With some of the world’s ‘Most Innovative‘ universities, Chicago’s institutions are hard-at-work keeping the city’s entrepreneurial pipeline flowing. And outside of universities, Chicago also a healthy edtech scene, complete with a number growing startups of coding schools.

Shaily Baranwal
  • Abbie J. Smith, Faculty, UChicago Booth School of Business | First academic in the U.S to focus on urban entrepreneurism. challenging top MBA students to look at opportunities for creating disruptive solutions to urban problems.
  • Aaron Fazulak, CEO & Co-Founder, Designation | Over 350 students enrolled, doubled headcount, quadrupled physical space
  • Britney Robbins, founder, Gray Matter Experience | This summer, launched a nine-week entrepreneurship program for black high school students
  • Carrie Shaw, founder, Embodied Labs | Embodied Labs creates immersive, interactive, VR experiences for health training
  • David Schonthal | Clinical Associate Professor of Innovation Entrepreneurship, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management
  • Ethan Linkner, Cofounder, LearnCore | 400% growth last year; triple digit grow again this year
  • The Graide Network | Has grown its user base 10-fold over the past six months
  • LearnLeo | Bringing legal education to the digital age
  • LearnMetrics | Have served 150K+ students through 179,544 interventions that target academic success
  • Lorena Mesa, Sprout Social Data Engineer, PyLadies Organizer, Python Software Foundation Board Member | An encouragement for women and minorities in tech across Chicago
  • Mission Propelle | Organization empowers girls 1st-5th grade using reading and yoga
  • Melissa Kaufman, Executive Director of The Garage @ Northwestern | In its first year, The Garage averaged over a 1,000 visitors per month with over 60 student ventures
  • Mitch Kirby, CEO & Co-Founder of TransparentMBA | Over 20 university partners added in 2016
  • RYE Consulting | Client base has grown 73% in 2016, with 2 of their clients getting acquired
  • Neal Sales Griffin, CEO, CodeNow | This year, sold Starter League to a NY-based Y Combinator coding school and moved on non-profit CodeNow
  • Patrick J. Murphy | Award-winning scholar/author, trains many Chicago entrepreneurs, youngest full professor at DePaul’s business school. Board President, Chicago Cultural Alliance
  • Playworks Illinois | Leverages the power of play to transform children’s social and emotional health
  • Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation | Its flagship program, the New Venture Challenge, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary
  • Power Up Tech Academy | Has grown from 14 students to over 160 since launching last spring
  • Saya Hillman, Owner, Mac & Cheese Productions | Helping Chicago’s entrepreneurs, artists and dreamers live a “Life of Yes”
  • Shaily Baranwal, Founder & CEO, Classblox and Elevate K-12| Has facilitated 1,000,000 Hours of completed online education, with a 95% completion rate to date
  • Taylor Manus, Strategic Partnerships Lead, General Assembly Chicago
  • Vinesh Kannan, CS student, IIT, co-founder of Omnipointment | A regular attendee at Civic Hack Night and helps develop high school computer science programs for CPS
  • Youtopia | A student engagement platform that provides instant access to plug-and-play gamification tools


Lorena Mesa works a challenging job as a software engineer at Sprout Social, organizes the Python learning group PyLadies, and recently joined the board of the Python Software Foundation. She also runs many miles per week, volunteers with underrepresented groups in tech, and is a encouragement for women and minorities in tech across Chicago.


Innova EV

Chicago’s a word hard, play hard kind of city, and the below companies and entrepreneurs, from food delivery startups to fitness innovators, are bringing that sense of ‘play’ into the community

  • American Bocce Co.| Expanded to 30 + leagues in Chicago in 3 years
  • Bryon Finke, Founder, Marketsquare | A HomeChef co-founder, Finke now launched Marketsquare, an easy way to buy and sell used furniture online
  • Colleen Shaughnessy, Co-Founder, LulaFit | Began Lulafit from her couch in River North, expanded Lulafit to seven locations in the city
  • Crafty | In 2016, went from 0 to 200 offices served
  • Eat Pak’d | A recent Techstars graduarte, all 3 founders are 3rd generation Midwestern entrepreneurs
  • Eat Purely | On-demand food delivery service of healthy organic chef made meals
  • Fitness Cubed | The makers of the smart under table elliptical device
  • Fooda | Recently just surpassed serving 10 million lunches
  • Figo Pet Insurance | 30% growth month-over-month and 1 of 35 companies featured at Dreamforce’s Startup Valley
  • Hassan Ali Creative Marketing Director, The Onion | Bringing two incredibly disparate industries – comedy and tech – closer together
  • HomeChef | Raised a $40M Series B in September
  • Innova EV | Developers of the DASH electric vehicle
  • Josh Katt, Founder and CEO, Kitchfix | Hired 50% of Kitchfix’s 40-plus employees through the Cara Program and Growing Home organizations
  • Meal Sharing | In 2016, opened up their platform to restaurants
  • Remote Year | Raised $12M in October to help workers see the world
  • Tovala | A New Venture Challenge winner, Tovala creates a multi-function smart oven


What started with leasing a vacant Chicago lot and transforming it into a public bocce ball park in Wicker Park has lead the (now) American Bocce Co to building courts, hosting leagues and events for thousands of bocce players around the world. In less than three years they have successfully expanded from a single court to managing over 30 + leagues in Chicago. In addition to single handedly growing a cult following of bocce in their own home town, they’ve spread the love by expanding leagues in Knoxville, Milwaukee, Boston and New York City.


Chicago’s been a storied ad town for over a century and that legacy is starting to bleed into the city’s innovation economy, as exemplified by a number of the nominations below.

  • 4C Insights | Raised $26M in Spetember to revolutionize second screen advertising
  • Christine Librojo, Marketing Coordinator, alligatortek |Manages the company’s external marketing, internal marketing, and brand awareness; has become a budding thought-leader in the Chicago tech scene
  • Clarity Partners | Of its 136 employees, the management consulting firm’s current workforce is 52% minority employees and 45% women
  • ConceptDrop | Closed a $1.1M Seed Round and was accepted into the 500 Startups Program in Silicon Valley
  • DevMynd Software, Inc. | Raised $4M Series A from Motorola Solutions Venture Capital
  • Digital Intent | An innovation team in a box, was #1,048 on the Inc 5000
  • Earshot | Helping major brands change the way they discover and engage people in real-time on social media
  • Elevate | Practices user-focused design thinking to architect digital experiences for style brands
  • Indigo Interactive | A minority and women-owned business that designs, develops and customizes software and workflow automation solutions
  • Jeffery Beckham Jr., President, Black Box Creative Inc. | Outside of Black Box, Beckham was also the lead instructor in Lumity’s Youth Led Tech initiative
  • Jessica Zweig, Founder & CEO SimplyBe Agency | A Snapchat marketing and advertising agency
  • LaunchPad Lab | The agency has doubled every year since they started 4 years ago
  • Mark Shore, Co-Founder, Strike Social | Chicago office has quadrupled in size over the past year
  • Mightybytes | A sustainable web design and marketing firm
  • MSTQ | Interactive agency specializing in UX/UI design, brand strategy and technology
  • Vibes | The mobile marketing pioneer raised $45M in May
  • Rightpoint | The Chicago consulting firm and digital agency raised $55M this spring
  • Rocket Wagon | A product, design, and innovation agency; built the digital strategy for Barnes & Noble College
  • Signal | Has seen a 111,730.8% growth rate over the last 5 years. Raised $30M Series E this summer
  • SpringCM | The maker of cloud software that helps companies manage sales contracts raised $17.5M in June
  • StickOutSocial | In last 3 years, have seen over 2,500% growth in revenue
  • Studio 424 | Digital studio that creates experiences intended to make people’s lives better
  • Traci Halpern | Served as Head of Marketing for 5 Chicago startups spanning over a decade including FeedBurner and BrightTag. Now consults with startups on ‘Scrappy Marketing’ strategies


Tom Cullen gained his business chops by founding and operating a profitable high-frequency trading firm that relied and competed on fast-paced technology. Following that success, Tom taught himself to code and built a company that is focused on designing and developing highly impactful technology. They are building cutting edge web and mobile software in Healthcare, finance, and IoT. The reason Tom and LaunchPad are on fire is because of their selection process for the clients they work with. They are insanely selective on the businesses they work with. This includes building cancer research software to cutting edge IoT companies.

SUPPORTERS (Investors, Incubators, Mentors & More) 

Life Creative

Every entrepreneur needs help, whether its capital, mentorship, space, advocacy, or direction. Fortunately, Chicago’s flush with supporters

  • 2112 | A music/entertainment incubator, has has grown from 0 to more than 75 member companies in their first year of operation
  • Ali Afridi & Eric Ong, Venture Capitalists, Lightbank | Lightbank’s newest VCs, both contribute terrific Chicago tech/startup guides to Medium and LinkedIn
  • Alida Miranda-Wolff, Associate Manager, Hyde Park Angels | Has created over 311 unique pieces of content supporting education of midwest startups
  • Cayla Chambers, Partner, InvestHER Ventures | Working to cement Chicago as the female founder hub in the US
  • Colin Keeley, Founder & Host, Tech In Chicago Podcast | Fosters engaging conversations with the community’s thought-leaders
  • Elmspring | The first real estate  focused seed stage accelerator in the world 
  • FinTEx | An industry led initiative to grow the Chicago FinTech ecosystem
  • Glenn Eden, executive vice president, Weber Shandwick | A champion of Chicago’s tech community in both his professional and many volunteer activities
  • Kristi Dula, Network Relationship Manager, Pritzker Group Venture Capital | A key connector in the Chicago tech community, Dula facilitates relationships for Pritzker Group’s family of portfolio companies
  • Life Creative | A new 70k square foot co-working, co-educational, incubation and innovation center
  • Michael Sachaj, Principal, Hyde Park Angels | Sourced 837 companies in less than 9 months, and he led 16 investments in that same time
  • Nick Moran, Angel Investor, GP at New Stack Ventures, and host of Chicago-based The Full Ratchet Podcast | Nick’s podcast has over 100 episodes with over 79 5-star reviews
  • Nicole Yeary, Founder & President, Ms.Tech CO | Ms.Tech has grown by 43% over the last 12 months into a vibrant, engaged base of 2,822 active members
  • OCA Ventures | $2 billion in successful exits in two years; just closed a $70 million funding round
  • Origin Ventures | 100% of our investments this year have been towards Chicago companies
  • TechNexusA Chicago tech pillar, TechNexus is a still-expanding venture collaborative and co-working space
  • Vested World | Helps investors invest in emerging market startups, online
  • Victor Gutwein, Managing Director, M25 Group | Current age: 24. Companies funded: 25 and counting


Glenn Eden is a true champion of Chicago’s tech community in both his professional and many volunteer activities. As the technology practice lead for the Chicago office of Weber Shandwick, the world’s leading communication firm, Glenn elevates the business and innovation of many of the tech industry’s well-known companies and leaders, like Chicago-based GoGo and Motorola, as well as being a key Chicago connection for global tech brands and influential media who seek his insights. Beyond his leadership promoting Chicago-based tech client partners, Glenn puts his branding and marketing savvy to work to promote the Chicago tech industry overall.

Thank you to our event Sponsors!


(Images via Chicago Inno)