News Column

Chicago Entrepreneurial Center Chief Willer Stepping Down

Feb 13, 2013

Melissa Harris

Kevin Willer, who helped launch and operates 1871, the city's technology startup hub in The Merchandise Mart, will step down this summer as chief executive of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center to co-lead the i2A Fund, a local venture capital fund.

The Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center's flagship project is 1871, which has quickly become the heart of the city's startup community, hosting visiting dignitaries, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as 12-hour hackathons.

Willer, 38, said he will stay on at the CEC at least until 1871's one-year anniversary in May and then will not be going far. The i2A Fund's office is located inside 1871, a 50,000-square-foot space.

"My plan was to always be an investor, that's why I was learning the business (as a partner at J.B. and Tony Pritzker's New World Ventures)," Willer said of the second job he was doing while leading the CEC. "I wasn't planning on (becoming an investor) this quickly, but it was a unique opportunity."

Although digital startups are sprouting in Chicago at a rate of about one every other day, there are few venture capital jobs like the one Willer is taking at i2A. Venture capital firms invest in the early stages of a technology company. The firm's partners almost always take board seats at their portfolio companies and exert some control over their growth.

"It wasn't really super public knowledge about my looking for a partner and yet a couple dozen people threw their name in the hat," said Stuart Larkins, managing director of the i2A fund, which stands for the Illinois Innovation Accelerator Fund. "Things like this don't come around often at all, particularly given the high-profile investors that we have."

I2A launched in 2007 and is in the process of raising its second fund. Its first fund totaled $10 million with about $2 million coming from two sources of state taxpayer money and the rest from wealthy investors, Larkins said.

The second fund likely will contain no taxpayer money, Larkins said. Funding will come from a suite of wealthy families, including those of J.B. and Tony Pritzker, represented on the i2A board by Adam Koopersmith; Aon founder Pat Ryan, represented by his son, Pat Ryan Jr.; and Arlington Park race track chairman Richard Duchossois, represented by Robert Fealy, the president of The Duchossois Group, Larkins said.

I2A co-founder Kapil Chaudhary will continue to play a role in the investments he oversaw from the firm's first fund but will have no role in new investments, Larkins said.

Larkins said he has known Willer for 12 years. The two met soon after Willer co-founded the Google Chicago office in 2000. Larkins described Willer's role at the entrepreneurial center as that of "a politician." His job at i2A will involve a lower profile, which Willer acknowledged.

"The last year or so with 1871 has been so rewarding and energizing," Willer said. "But I've been working crazy, crazy hours and have three young kids. I need to have a little more balance in my life."



Source: (c)2013 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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