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Four of Crain’s Most Innovative Companies in Chicago

By Kevin Beerman / October 28, 2019
This article was originally published by John Pletz in Crain’s Chicago Business 

No one has the franchise on innovation. Crain’s Most Innovative Companies list includes venture-backed startups and century-old stalwarts, those that are privately held and publicly traded. The list, now in its eighth year, uses patent output as a window into what Chicago companies are good at: wireless electronics, artificial intelligence, medical devices and packaging equipment with cutting-edge technology. The ranking, done with intellectual property adviser Ocean Tomo, reveals how diverse our economy is, from software and pharmaceuticals to retail and factories. And it provides insight into the nature of innovation itself. Some inventors are looking to breathe new life into old businesses, others are creating new ones from scratch.

1. NUCURRENT

What it does: Wireless charging systems | Founded: 2009 | Patents in 2018: 7

To most of us, patents are a black-and-white matter. At NuCurrent, they’re blue and white.

The walls of the small technology company’s West Loop offices are covered with images from its patent applications: blue for patents that have been granted and white for those that are pending. There is a lot more blue on the walls these days, since NuCurrent was singled out in 2015 for having the most patents per capita among Chicago-area companies. Now it tops Crain’s Most Innovative Companies list for highest overall quality of patents issued.

The company, which has about 30 employees, was awarded seven U.S. patents last year. Altogether, it has won 34. NuCurrent’s first product was an antenna that allowed a device to receive power from a nearby source, charging it wirelessly and doing it faster and more efficiently than other technologies. Patents issued last year involve using a single antenna to do multiple functions, such as power and communication between components inside a device, which saves both space and power.

Its latest innovations involve charging devices over longer distances, through metal and charging multiple products. NuCurrent also is using near-field wireless communication protocol, the kind used for mobile-phone payments at checkout, to move power and data.

 

2. HORIZON THERAPEUTICS

What it does: Pharmaceuticals | Founded: 2005 | Patents last year: 11

Breakthroughs at drug companies don’t end with the invention of a new treatment.

Horizon Therapeutics vaults to No. 2 on our list with five follow-on patents related to Ravicti, the drug acquired by Horizon in 2015 for urea cycle disorders, a rare metabolic disease that can cause a potentially fatal buildup of ammonia.

“The development of a compound or a molecule is a starting point,” says Nelson Alexander, Horizon’s senior vice president for legal. “The research doesn’t end there.“

Horizon, whose main offices are in Lake Forest, is stepping up its R&D capabilities to develop more drugs for rare, or “orphan,” diseases. The company has added nearly 100 R&D workers in the past two years, says spokesman Geoff Curtis. R&D spending roughly doubled between 2015 and 2018 as sales grew to $1.2 billion from $757 million.

 

3. PREGIS

What it does: Equipment for packaging materials | Founded: 2005 | Patents last year: 6

Sometimes innovation comes from thinking inside the box.

Pregis makes equipment used by some of the top e-commerce companies to protect the products they ship.

The Deerfield-based company, which traces its roots to Tenneco spinout Pactiv, used to make bubble wrap. Today its machines create an array of packaging, from air-filled wraps and foam to paper-based products. Pregis has more than 350 patents, which has helped it grow packaging from less than $10 million in revenue in 2005, when it spun off from Pactiv, to nearly $1 billion today. It was recently acquired by private-equity firm Warburg Pincus.

 

4. PERSONIFY

What it does: Video editing software | Founded: 2010 | Patents last year: 5

The value of a technology breakthrough by a trio of University of Illinois researchers in 2010 is coming into sharper focus.

The company they founded, Personify, moves up to No. 4 from 10th place last year.

Personify developed a virtual green screen, using software to eliminate or blur the background in video, making it better for webinars, videoconferencing or smartphone use. Four years ago, the company turned to artificial intelligence to improve the software, allowing it to better handle smaller image details such as fingers and hair.

 

Want to learn more about the most innovative companies in Chicago? Explore the full list on the Crain’s Chicago Business website for the 45 most innovative companies in Chicago.