Smile Politely

BEST Tech 2016

It’s that time of the year again: the time when Smile Politely passes judgment on the fine people, businesses, and locations of our community. Generally it’s difficult, when given two equally outstanding options, to pick just one as being the best. Difficult, but not impossible.

— Emilio Jasso

BEST New Event
Astronomy on Tap

Hosted by U of I’s Department of Astronomy, Astronomy on Tap is a series of conversations (because they are definitely more conversations than lectures) about, you guessed it, astronomy. Anyone from the community is welcome (and encouraged) to attend and learn more about pretty much anything, though each conversation is themed. Because they take place at Cafeteria & Co in Urbana (and are free) they are definitely more accessible and feel more welcoming than signing up for an “official” course. The events, every third Thursday of the month at 6pm, are informative, engaging, and definitely a welcome and appreciated addition to our community. (EJ)

BEST tour plans and Kickstarter

MakerGirl is something to behold when it comes to successfully perpetuating STEM — and after their amazing Kickstarter campaign, their tour plans are pretty baller. With the funding, it helped support their goal of traveling across the country to provide these courses for young girls that are interested in learning more about technology and advancing their skills at such a young age. Champaign-Urbana should be proud that this sort of thing is coming from our community. (PS)

BEST under-the-radar tech
The Lincoln Bookbindery

Some might consider bookbinding a lost art, something that went the way of the dinosaurs when some anonymous programmer compiled Microsoft Word for the first time. But, they’d be grossly mistaken, especially since one of the finest bookbinderies in the world exists right here in Champaign-Urbana. Nestled just west of the Busey Woods, the Lincoln Bookbindery continues to use tried-and-true techniques to bring beautiful pieces of utilitarian art to life. They’ve been working and honing their skills without fanfare (or much media exposure) for a while, and, by the sheer excellence of their abilities, they’ve been able to keep at it. (EJ)

BEST milestone worth celebrating
NCSA 30th Anniversary

A Dirty Thirty is always something to celebrate. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a checkpoint, and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications is going all out by celebrating all year long. The center has worked hard to push the boundaries of supercomputing and has helped every other branch of science by helping scientists perform literally quadrillions of calculations per second (thanks, Blue Waters!) (EJ)

BEST unconventional tech event venue
Sipyard/Cafeteria & Company

Pizza M gets this title, if only for the fact that they’re so accomodating to the folks involved with Astronomy on Tap. I was present at the first Astronomy on Tap, which was hosted behind Pizza M in Bar M. Not only did Pizza/Bar M staff go out of their way to personally help the event come together, but when it was clear that interest in the event was outstripping Bar M’s capacity, they quickly and wholeheartedly agreed to shift everything over to Pizza M, where the event has been ever since. You’d be hard pressed to find another restaurant which caters so well to the science geek in all of us. (EJ)

On top of that, SIpyard as a host to this Pygmalion Tech event in 2015 was pretty much the best space. (PS)

BEST new convenience
Mobile Meter

We’ve all been there: you’re running late, but you see the perfect parking spot, just sitting, glistening, waiting for you to ease yourself in. And then you realize you don’t have any change. However, no longer will we suffer the indignity of having to leave the perfect parking spot as soon as you pull in thanks to Mobile Meter, a service which lets you pay for parking from your mobile phone or web browser. It even sends you alerts when you’re meter is getting low and lets you refill the meter from wherever you are. No more sprinting from a restaurant or sneaking out in the middle of a movie trying to avoid getting a ticket! But the absolute best part? It even works with non-smart phones. (EJ)

BEST potetial in a new video game

Some of the older crowd here might remember an outstanding video game called Descent that came out sometime in the mid 1990s. It was well-known for having innovative, true six-degree-of-freedom movements, and just being downright fun. Well, the original team got back together and, with the help of Kickstarter, are working on a new game called Overload, which will harken back to the original Descent games while exploiting the updates that have reached the game industry in the past 20 years. (EJ)

BEST promoter of local tech
Research Park

Even C-U residents like me who only leave their homes once or twice a month to stock up on canned stew and Grape Nuts are aware of Research Park. Research Park, located in Champaign, has been helping startups and entrepreneurs to meet the right people, get the right support, and develop themselves and their ideas to make the world a better place since 1999. They’re still going strong, hosting workshops,supporting a tech incubator, and in general helping to ensure that C0U continues to have a vibrant and burgeoning tech industry. (EJ)

BEST watercooler conversation
Fiber in C-U

There aren’t too many options for internet in the CU area, but the one that everyone would like to have is that glittery unicorn, fiber. Unfortunately, it’s apparently difficult for a company who isn’t AT&T or Comcast to get involved.The company iTV3 has apparently been trying to get in on the game (and, let’s be honest, more competition on the market can only be good for consumers, right?) but apparently have been having some issues regarding the city of Urbana. Whether your opinion is that the company should be allowed to establish service, or you feel only AT&T and Comcast should be allowed, or you don’t care and just want to download a full HD episode of Toddlers in Tiaras in three seconds, the idea of fiber internet in CU should definitely be something to talk about. (EJ)

BEST funding and initial growth

Agrible has far outgrown their “start up” status in a lot of ways — closing a few million bucks worth of fundraising a short while back, adding a lot of employees, and generally hitting it out of the park. Especially in Central Illinois, where farmland is king — their technologies have proven to scale up quite nicely within the realm of agricultural tech. (PS)

BEST hackathon

The students behind HackIllinois are basically crushing the game, just by the looks of what types of companies are supporting this hackathon that takes place every spring. Total tip of the cap to the organizers of the event, and their continued collaborations and emphasis on engineering and computer science year after year. (PS)

BEST Kickstarter video

Have you watched this? It helped SNOOZ take off in a considerable way back when it was released — and it was developed here in Champaign-Urbana. Not only is the tech really cool and interesting, but the video was a definite BEST in a place where videos can be so, so badly executed when it comes to fundraising. (PS)

BEST underrated C-U tech

There are plenty of types of technology worth celebrating in Champaign-Urbana, but one that might not come to mind immediately that is super underrated: drones. Between Horizon and Hobbico, plus the developments and researchers at the U of I (specifically in Mechanical Science and Engineering), drones are kind of the shit. Their usage transcends many types of industries, whether they’re used on a macro scale, or something you’re wanting to fly around in your backyard — there is a lot going on in C-U when it comes to drones. (PS) 

BEST tech scene vet
Lori Gold Patterson

What more can you say about Lori Gold Patterson that hasn’t been said already? Longtime tech leader in Champaign-Urbana, and I hate to even say something like this — but she is the gold standard for this sector: she’s an entrepreneur, an engineer, and she’s business-savvy, and more. Pixo is flourishing from what we can gather, and she is a big reason why C-U looks the way it does when it comes to tech. (PS)

BEST student program

The iVenture program has been established to help students work on their start up ventures, and over the course of the past couple of years, it has grown and become one of the best asset students have to work on their projects throughout the summer. Teams are selected and are able to spend valuable time to construct the projects and companies that they desire, and it is only looking to keep moving forward in years to come. (PS)

BEST place to create
The Champaign-Urbana Community FabLab has taken off a bit, and acts as a valuable resource for the community to utilize 3D printing, community collaboration, and all sorts of other things that are typically difficult to access. As a space to create, it is one of the best places to access these resources. (PS)

Emilio Jasso and Patrick Singer contributed to this article.

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