Q&A with one of Chicago’s most prolific tech entrepreneurs – Chris Gladwin

 

This issue of Catalyst takes you inside the mind of serial entrepreneur Chris Gladwin, founder and former CEO of data storage company Cleversafe, which recently sold to IBM for more than $1.3 billion. What follows is an edited interview with Gladwin – who serves on the ISTC Board of Directors – about launching Cleversafe, hiring and retaining talent, his recent gift to Illinois Tech, and his high hopes for Chicago’s tech community.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Q: Let’s start from the beginning – what drove you to become a tech entrepreneur?

A: I’ve always possessed a strong passion for disruptive technology change. My first experimentation with launching a business was in college, which taught me that I really needed to get out there and get some experience honing my technical skills. After college I worked in the aerospace industry and then the computer industry for a while, learning how to build IT products and hardware, and also learning what it meant to be a customer of IT products. As I dabbled in startups, my early ventures taught me the importance of two big things – the right timing and the right people. You have to understand what the market really wants and when it wants it. The idea of Cleversafe came together just as the scale of big data was picking up – the timing was just right.

 

Q: Cleversafe generated a pretty incredible amount of IP – what were those early development days like?
A: We made it our goal to store the world’s data, but took some time building our technology and cultivating relationships. It took us five or six years before our first real customer, which is actually the norm in the enterprise storage platform market. But, with a dogged belief to make it big, a solid product, and a strong technical team in hand, there was no looking back after that. The company has over a thousand patent applications to its name, and all 5 of the top 5 patent applicants in the city of Chicago are tied to Cleversafe. It’s an astonishing level of innovation from a company of that size.

 

Q: Cleversafe’s roots are deeply entwined with IIT (Illinois Tech) – how did that come to be?
A: In March 2005, David Weinstein [founding president of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center] introduced me to David Baker, VP of External Affairs at Illinois Tech, around the time when I was launching Cleversafe and at a time when the Tech Park was about to be built. He told me there were zero software businesses there at the time – and with an eye towards recruitment I asked to move in the following week, even though the tech park wasn’t even scheduled to open for a year or two. We had probably close to 2,000 students apply for internships, and it seemed every computer science student wanted to work on this cool idea literally across the street from the dorms. I devised a test to determine who to select and made it so hard and long that most wouldn’t finish. They needed to write software and go through code line by line – and it wasn’t just that I was looking for the smartest students, but those that wanted to solve problems. We had somewhere between 60-80 interns from Illinois Tech [over 3 years at the University Tech Park] and hired 15 or so, most of whom stayed with the company.

 

Pictured above are Chris Gladwin (right) with David Baker, VP of External Affairs at Illinois Tech (left), and David Weinstein, founding chairman of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center (CEC, center) (Photo courtesy: David Baker)

 

Q: Speaking of keeping talent, you’ve previously mentioned that Cleversafe had an astounding 95% talent retention rate – how did you manage that?
A: In some years we actually went as high as 98% percent – we just didn’t lose talent. A lot of it is…what talented people want to do is challenging and interesting work and be in an environment where they can really make a difference. Cleversafe clearly had a challenge – our goal was to build the technology to store the world’s data, so that’s about as big as an idea gets. Smart people want to work with other smart people and every day we were working on groundbreaking capabilities. I’m also proud of the fact that we were able to distribute equity across the team. I think we created something like 80 millionaires with the IBM acquisition.

 

Q: You recently announced a $7.6 million gift to the Computer Science Department at Illinois Tech, what went into that decision beyond just wanting to give back to the university?
A: There are three pillars groups this gift is designed to help – the computer science department at Illinois Tech, the university as an institution itself, and the larger Chicago tech ecosystem. Chicago has made incredible progress since Cleversafe first launched, and has moved to the second tier – nationally of technology entrepreneurship ecosystems. The next question is how can it move to the first tier. All of the country’s top tech ecosystems have one of the country’s top computer science programs located in their metropolitan area, producing at least a thousand students a year. Computer science is the glue around technology – not only does it create things in its own domain, but it’s an essential ingredient for every other technological innovation. My vision for the donation is to double the size of the undergraduate computer science program and build on our momentum to create more top tier tech companies. It’s the fuel Chicago needs and will come from not only Illinois Tech, but other leading Chicago universities.

 

Q: What do you make of the perception that Chicago is challenged with retaining tech talent, particularly from our flagship University of Illinois?
A: I recall being in a meeting with members of my team and someone from a company in Boston, who pulled me aside in disbelief afterwards and told me they could never have acquired or retained this kind of talent there, or anywhere, even Silicon Valley. They were blown away by the quality of our people. Every tech ecosystem needs its examples, and Cleversafe is a very good one for Chicago – we proved that you really can do it here, when it comes to launching a business, and there can be no doubts or excuses for anyone who thinks otherwise. If there is a discussion that Chicago’s tech talent escapes to the coasts, or that it is difficult to attract talent to Chicago from Urbana-Champaign – Cleversafe, a market leader in an extremely competitive category, proved otherwise.

 

Q: Switching gears, how’d you get into endurance racing?
A: At MIT, I played soccer, and even after college I was fairly active in sports. I was actually introduced to endurance sports by [fellow Chicago tech entrepreneur] Chuck Templeton, a former army ranger, with a race called the ‘Wild Scallion’. Endurance racing is finding your way quickly through unfamiliar territory – which is essentially what entrepreneurship also is all about.

 

Q: As of February 2016, you have officially stepped down from the management at Cleversafe. What’s next?
A: It will take some time to figure out. I am definitely thinking of one, maybe even two more businesses, but I don’t know as of now. It took some time to figure out what Cleversafe was, and it will be the same moving forward.


Watch and Listen

Chris Gladwin: Where will your data live? from Chicago Ideas Week on Vimeo


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The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce in partnership with Mesirow Financial launched the James Tyree Emerging Business Leadership Award in 2012 in memory of Jim Tyree, former Chairman and CEO of Mesirow Financial and Chairman of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce from 2007-2010. The Tyree Award was created to recognize and encourage local    entrepreneurs and small businesses to continue to grow and create jobs in the Chicagoland region. The 2016 James Tyree Emerging Business Leadership award has been doubled, and applications are now accepted. Click the icon to read more.