August 19, 2013

Sen. Mark Kirk ’81 Bolsters Entrepreneurship in Chicago

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In 2012, Sen. Mark Kirk ’81 (R-Il.) helped launch Entrepreneurial Idol, a now-annual competition designed to spur innovation and found local business startups in Illinois. The success of the program in a state that is not usually associated with entrepreneurship encouraged Kirk and Chicago State University organizers to hold the competition again this year.

Sun Editor in Chief Rebecca Harris ’14 and Tech Editor David Marten ’14 sat down with Kirk and the contest’s inaugural winner, fellow Cornellian Sherrod Woods M.Eng. ’95, to chat about the pair’s shared home state, alma mater and involvement in what they describe as Chicago’s growing tech scene.

The Sun: Senator Kirk, tell us about Entrepreneurial Idol and your involvement with the project.

Sen. Mark Kirk ’81: Well, it started with the idea that to fix Chicago, we have to have an African American entrepreneurial class. In the South Side of Chicago, we have … too much violence, and we needed a success story. Sherrod was that success story. Sherrod happens to be the best guy to look up to as a person who’s been working in a high-tech sector, who’s very productive. I was happy that out of the 114 applicants, he won the competition, and that we could provide $10,000 in startup capital to [his healthcare management company], 3 Net Wise.

Sun: What was special about Sherrod’s entry?

M.K.: The neat thing about his technology — [a portable ECG heart monitor] — is that it really improves patient care. … These patients are going to be much better off. [Additionally], because of 3 Net Wise … costs to taxpayers will be cut. That’s what Sherrod has come up with, as an individual entrepreneur. … We have the story of a man who invented a product that saves lives and improves patient care and that is entirely created on intellectual capital. Having heard from Sherrod, heard the pitch, I know why he won the competition. 3 Net Wise sold itself.

Sun: How would you say your Cornell education influenced your respective work on this initiative and in general?

M.K.: I feel that I’ve never worked as hard in my life as I did when I was at Cornell. … I learned how to study that hard and work that hard. … Someday, I hope engineering students at Cornell will study what Sherrod has put together.

Sherrod Woods M.Eng. ’95: I would echo those sentiments. … One thing that really helped me [was] the rigor of the program, especially the masters in electrical engineering program, [because] I had to come up with something novel. And so the project I worked on was a portable electronic ECG monitor to monitor patients with heart arrhythmias. … It required a lot of research and coming up with a novel approach, and because of the rigor of going through hours of coursework and research, I think it helped to shape my mind in terms of being able to look at a problem and look at it differently from others who had approached the same problem.

Sun: Sherrod, what made you decide to enter the competition? And now that you’ve won, what’s next for 3 Net Wise?

S.W.: I thought it was a great opportunity to have our product vetted by the community, determine what the business community especially would think of our product. Shortly after we won the competition … we started working with the Healthcare Consortium of Illinois. We submitted a proposal with the consortium; they engage in contract negotiations with the state. We hope to have a contract negotiated and signed at the end of August. That would mean for us we’d [get started] in late September. We’ve attracted a lot of good attention so far.

Sun: It seems that more and more Cornellians are getting involved with similar initiatives. What’s your reaction to Cornell’s growing presence in the tech scene?

M.K.: I talked to New York officials about [Cornell NYC Tech], and it seems exciting, and that Cornell will be the right institution to spark that innovation. In the case of this competition, it was a completely open competition, and I didn’t know what school people had gone to. I was very proud when Sherrod won. When I first met him after, and I asked him, “Where’d you go to college?”, he said, “Cornell,” and I just about spit up my food.

Sun: When people talk about tech startups, places like Silicon Valley, and more recently New York City, often steal the limelight. Do you think more of a startup culture might be emerging in Chicago and Illinois?

M.K.: Chicago is becoming a more interesting place for innovation, with companies just exploding. We’re [already] home to the largest airline, to the University of Chicago … That tradition of innovation is, I think, the key to higher income, especially when it comes out of a recognized African American figure like Sherrod, who is someone people can emulate and look up to as an example. … If you have the right idea to bring to the market … you can have a business of your own, and a business of your own is not just higher income — it’s respect and power and confidence and self-assuredness.

Original Author: Sun Staff