11 Chicago Startups Destined to Breakout in 2014

Tech Cocktail: Now With More Hyper-Local!

In case you missed it Tech Cocktail is more region-specific than ever. Atlanta, Austin, Boise, Chicago, Dallas, DC, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, NYC, and San Francisco have gotten their own dedicated pages with their own design, their own posts, and their own trending content from around the web.  It's cool – we agree, but this is only the beginning.  Stay tuned for much more to come.

As part of the city-specific kickoff party – we will be featuring a healthy dose of content for your region over the coming weeks.

Today's edition is directing the spotlight toward the city where it all began for Tech Cocktail: Chicago, IL, a city that has been getting a lot of attention for its growing startup ecosystem.  Rightfully so.  Since Groupon exploded onto the scene, Chicago has emerged as one of the top startup hubs in the country – and recently recognized as one of the top 10 globally by Startup Genome.

Why?  There are several reasons.  The aforementioned Groupon has drawn a lot of attention, and although over the last couple of years it hasn't all been positive, the company continues to grow.  The cascading effect has proven beneficial.  It's home to one of the top accelerators (now TechStars Chicago).  1871 has emerged as one of the best co-working spaces in the nation, with NextSpace and Catapult Chicago serving as quality alternatives for startups.   The city plays host to many quality entrepreneurial-focused events including Technori Pitch, techweek Chicago, and of course, Tech Cocktail's many Chicago events.  Two of the top six business schools in the nation reside there.  The list goes on…

For the purposes of this article, the why isn't important.  We are here to uncover the who.

I reached out to a handful of those fully entrenched in the Chicago startup scene to nominate a startup who was destined to breakout.  Whether that be from early stage to mid-stage, mid-stage to late-stage, the emphasis was on progress.  There are a few notable startups who have been left off the list largely because they have already broken out in the eyes of many – this includes Belly, SceneTap, and GrubHub, amongst others.  Also, this list is by no means all inclusive.  Feel free to share your thoughts if we missed anyone in the comments…


About: StyleSeek is a personalized style discovery site. Its team of software engineers and creative professionals has developed a platform that integrates recommendation technologies, lifestyle blogs, and e-commerce.

Why: “A group of overly smart guys building some revolutionary commerce software.”

Biggest obstacle: “Focusing their amazing technology on the right verticals and solutions.”

– John Roa, CEO at ÄKTA


About:  TempoDB is a database service purpose-built to store and analyze massive streams of time series data.

Why: “Tempo just received a big check from Hyde Park Venture Partners, an active and helpful VC (not just cash) – so they just upped their game and their bank account. Tempo’s database is purpose -built to store and analyze the massive streams of time series data generated by sensors and connected devices (think about how many things now get measured over and over again – now versus 5 years ago, 10). Justin tells me that over 50 billion connected devices will come online by 2020, and industries as diverse as Energy, Infrastructure, Manufacturing, and Health Care do NOT, absent TempoDB, have tools to store, analyze, and monitor the trillions of time series data points streaming from sensors and devices. The database of 1990 or even 2005 wasn’t built to handle that. It breaks! So Tempo is now gassed up to focus on a market that’s growing so fast it’s hard to comprehend the opportunity and they already serve a diverse and growing customer base.

Biggest Obstacle: Traditional scaling issues. TempoDB will need to continue rapidly scaling its technologies and infrastructure while simultaneously growing its Engineering, Solutions, Sales and Marketing teams in 2014 to support the explosive growth of the time series database-as-a-service market. (the $ from HPVP is explicitly intended to help them do that)

– Galen Mason, Co-Founder at Catapult Chicago


About: Opternative provides valid glasses and contact lens prescriptions online. For a very low cost you can obtain a prescription in the comfort of your own home or office. We also offer pricing for in-office exams that are cheaper than anything you will find today.

Why:  Their patented technology is a game-changer in the eye-care industry. The web-based platform is the world first online eye examination and is cheaper and more accurate than going to an optometrist.  With a rise in online retail spend for glasses,eyecare, etc. Opternative has another element – in that it can help to provide eye exams to third world countries and people who cannot afford traditional vision-care.

Biggest obstacle:  The biggest obstacle will be getting people to trust online eye exams – however this doubt can be mitigated with studies, PR, etc.

– Ryan Leavitt, Cofounder at Catapult Chicago

* Opternative was recently selected to Catapult.  According to Leavitt, “The founders of companies within Catapult selected Opternative because of their strong team, technology, and disruptive approach to the industry.” 



About: Rocketmiles is a website built to help people travel more and travel farther.  Their mission is to help you earn miles quicker, getting you to your dream vacation faster.

Why: “Curated hotel recommendations + competitive rates + thousands of frequent flier miles across nearly a dozen air carriers = fastest lane to free travel on the planet.”

Biggest obstacle: “The value of reward miles in a fast-consolidating airline space.”

– Tim Hanlon, Founder and CEO at The Vertere Group


About: Raise is a gift card marketplace where members can buy discount gift cards and sell unwanted gift cards for cash.

Why: “One of the fastest growing and most exciting start-ups in Chicago that have stayed under the radar. The hardest working team around.”

Biggest obstacle: “Figuring out what to size yacht to buy.”

– John Roa, CEO at ÄKTA


About: GiftBar is the fastest and easiest way to gift all the important people in your life, while supporting the best, independent merchants in your city.

Why:  “They're already in Chi, NY and LA and are launching in a bunch of new cities. They have some amazing partnerships with very high-end retailers that have historically been hesitant to lend their brands to an online site. Beautiful site, cool product.” – Sean Johnson, partner at Digital Intent

Biggest obstacle:  “Our biggest challenge will be juggling the various product initiatives that will add additional value to our merchant base while simultaneously pursuing aggressive consumer adoption.” – Jen Morris, co-founder at GiftBar


About: ConnectSense is a family of WiFi-based cloud-connected sensors for monitoring your home or business.

Why: “The world of home monitoring and smart houses has arrived and it is not product that only the luxury homes of yesteryear had. It puts peace of mind and total control of motion, water leakage, security, lighting, etc… into the users hands. The ability to know your home or office is safe from a remote place is the arrival of the future all on your mobile device.” – Adam Fridman, CEO at Meet Advisors

Biggest Obstacle: “The role of acclimating those who want secure homes to a digital front on their mobile devices. The mobility of such a product seems to be intimidating but a short introduction to the process will adequately quell any issues.” – Adam Justice, CEO, ConnectSense


About: SocialCrunch is the new way to unlock provocative insights for brands and their agencies.

Why: “Taking some very antiquated businesses (surveys, consumer research) and completely revolutionizing them. Already have big traction with major brands and graduated from TechStars.”

Biggest obstacle: “Commercializing and standardizing their software offering.”

– John Roa, CEO at ÄKTA


About: Silent auction technology company AuctionsByCellular (ABC) allows donors to bid via their cell phone.

Why: “Jim Alvarez is an entrepreneur's entrepreneur. He is in the trenches with his fast growing team and works many of the events that AuctionsByCellular serves to ensure quality and to get quick feedback from his customers. The market is also ripe with attendees at charity events – regardless of age – now with a smartphone in their hand. Paper auctions are a thing of the past, and Jim and ABC are poised to accelerate into this opportunity.”

Biggest obstacle: “There are a number of companies that offer similar services as ABC… though few who offer similar ‘service'.”

– Guy Turner, Managing Director at Hyde Park Ventures


About: Purely Fashion is a clean, direct, and exclusive way to discover emerging designers and follow all your favorites

Why:  “They're doing a pop-up at 900 N Michigan right now, and they have had solid user and revenue growth over the last year. They recently added Samantha Sleeper to their team, who teaches at Parsons and is well known in the NY fashion scene. Have lots of great things going for them.”  – Sean Johnson, partner at Digital Intent

Biggest Obstacle: “Continuing to improve the product – we have great 90 day retention and highly engaged users for those first 3 months, and we're excited to implement some new things to help keep them engaged over the long haul.” – Jeremiah Green, founder and CEO at Purely


About:  WeDeliver brings on demand delivery to your neighborhood. Ordered by You. Delivered by your Neighbor.

Why:  “I really believe in the founder, Jimmy Odom.  He's a product of our second season at Starter League.  He's gotten the Chicago tech scene aware of and behind his business, amased a great team, while pivoting multiple times in the process.  I feel really good about him as a first time entrepreneur.”

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Written by:
When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.
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