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Success Stories: Graduate Companies

How Cleversafe grew with the best and brightest

Chris Gladwin Cleversafe

In 2005, after leasing space in one of the 4 buildings that would soon become University Technology Park at IIT, Cleversafe founder Chris Gladwin began the hunt for talent to build his data storage business.

“Before moving in I’d learned about the caliber of students IIT attracted and knew they could be a real asset to us,” he says. “The first challenge we faced was finding the best candidates.”

Word spread quickly that a campus-based startup was hiring. Gladwin and his partners received hundreds of resumes from interested students, “so we put together a ridiculously tough test that many of them actually filled out and returned.”

Over time the process brought 80 skilled interns to Cleversafe. Around 20 of the early standouts became employees, and today, they’re part of a core team that continues to drive the company’s growth.

With over 200 million gigabytes of data storage shipped to customers, Cleversafe provides limitless, scalable big data storage for major clients in government and business. These include Shutterfly, the social sharing and publishing website whose storage costs dropped by more than 60% after Cleversafe applied its unique, slice-and-disperse technology to custom servers that house over 19 billion images from Shutterfly customers worldwide.

When you’re creating solutions at this level, “having seasoned experts who’ve worked together for years is a strong enabler of success,” Gladwin says. As one case in point, he recalls the Friday afternoon in early 2013 when team members discovered problems with a new system they’d just shipped to a large, high-profile client for a Tuesday launch.

Tapping almost 30 years of shared experience, the team pinpointed the critical issues within hours. “By Saturday we had partial answers and by Sunday we were testing a complete solution. On Tuesday we successfully launched the system and applied for a patent on the new software. We couldn’t have done it without our most experienced people, who, by the way, are on target to become some of the most prolific creators of new patents in the world.”

In the early days, IIT students also helped Cleversafe create an impressive workspace on a tight budget. “I was walking across campus, wondering how to build out our raw space with very few dollars to spend,” Gladwin recalls. “It occurred to me this would be a great project for students at the College of Architecture.”

The company hosted a student competition during the 2006-2007 academic year and the winner oversaw installation of the chosen design the following summer.  

Rapid growth prompted Cleversafe’s 2008 move to new headquarters in downtown Chicago, where Gladwin works with President and CEO John Morris to lead the company’s 105-member workforce.

Now a member of IIT’s board of trustees, Gladwin describes University Technology Park as “an ideal place for high-tech innovators to incubate and grow.”

Chromatin thrives with the right resources

Daphne Preuss Chromatin

When you’re running a high-tech startup, small glitches have a way of turning into big problems.
Just ask Daphne Preuss, founder and CEO of Chromatin, a biotech innovator delivering sustainable ways to serve the growing worldwide demand for food, fuel and feedstocks.

Founded in 2001 when Preuss was still a professor at The University of Chicago, the company soon obtained private funding and rented modest lab and office space across town. “It worked with our limited budget, but fell short on the basics – like reliable power,” she remembers.

To preserve research samples when air conditioning and freezers shut off, Chromatin staffers often rushed out to buy dry ice. “When you’re in danger of losing results that have taken months to produce, you do whatever it takes!” she says.

Information security posed a problem, too. “The space layout made it impossible to close off areas where confidential records were stored. As we began working with major agribusiness companies, this became an uncomfortable risk.”

Preuss and her team found welcome relief in 2008 when they moved to University Technology Park at IIT.

As the first commercial tenants in UTP’s Technology Business Center, Chromatin staffers found a lot to love: 24-hour security with key card access to labs and offices and backup generators that guaranteed the lights, refrigerators and other crucial equipment would remain on no matter what.

“We also liked having access to fully equipped meeting rooms we didn’t have to apologize for when customers came to visit,” she says, “and private spaces for important conversations.”

Sharing key resources – from conference space to autoclaves – helps startups stretch their dollars, Preuss says. “If you buy a building or lease raw space, there’s so much you have to build out yourself – that’s what makes UTP such a great deal for growing companies.”

Today, Chromatin’s 140-member staff operates from new headquarters in Chicago’s Loop. Focused on sorghum – a high-yield crop that uses nutrients efficiently and can be grown on more than 80% of the world’s arable land – the company produces proprietary hybrids that thrive in diverse climates, from temperate to tropical.

“With the demand for world food supplies expected to rise 70% in the next 40 years as land and water resources become more and more scarce, sorghum offers sustainable answers,” Preuss says. Learn more about the breakthroughs taking shape at Chromatin on the company’s website.

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