Spotlight on locally made products: How do entrepreneurs go from idea to market?


This article made possible by a Chicago Innovation Awards sponsorship.

Just as every Chicago small business has a story behind it, so does every product an entrepreneur designs.

Behind many of the city’s newest products are entrepreneurs who have created opportunity from adversity, often using severance checks to launch new businesses. By designing concepts that fill a market need, the inventors created not just products, but also jobs for themselves and others.

Innovation comes in many forms

They’ve proven that innovation comes in many forms: a new twist on an old recipe, a personal interpretation of an ordinary product, or combination of existing concepts. While tech companies might get the most notice, many of Chicago’s home-grown products are deliberately low-tech in design often made by hand for superior craftsman ship.

X-ray Design Vision

Julie Schanbeck's latest line of earrings and necklaces have a spinal fusion theme; photo by Maia Harms courtesy of Jules

For Julie Schwanbeck, the inspiration for a new line of necklaces and earrings was her personal experience at undergoing two spinal fusions to repair an injured back.  During her recovery, she sketched jewelry designs from her spinal X-rays. A bad back wasn’t the only hurdle: A few weeks after Schwanbeck returned to work, she was laid off. But the downsizing presented the opportunity to turn her jewelry into a full-time business called Jules.

“You can see in the lumbar and cervical spinal fusion necklaces the path I took,” Schwanbeck said. The new necklace collection, which ranges in price from $165 to $254, drew the attention of Rachel Ray, who wore a spinal fusion necklace on her television show, Schwanbeck said.

Jules makes “edgy, chic” jewelry designed to stand out, she said. Each piece is hand-fabricated in her studio. “We pride ourselves on making it by hand here in Chicago,” she said. The jewelry is available online at

She Sells She Beads

Once an X-Ray technician for the Chicago Bulls, Sandy Rueve’s first celebrity customer was Michael Jordan, who saw her stringing a bracelet back in 1993 and asked her to make beads for him.  Rueve took him seriously and soon hand-rolled a set of  beads from polymer clay in her basement.

While He Beads in dark tones for men are gaining in popularity, Rueve calls her company She Beads, and most of the beads for women have a floral motif. Many are strung with sterling or Swarovski spacers. But Rueve notes that He Beads for men also are gaining popularity.

After baking the clay, the beads are so durable you can drop them, Rueve said. Her flagship product is a bracelet with a key ring attached. Prices range from about $20 for earrings to more than $100 for necklaces. As She Beads gain notice, Rueve now sells overseas and through Diva direct sales domestically.

Kristin Amato also left a corporate job to launch a line of jewelry. She now sells her chunky pieces priced under $100 in 250 stores in seven countries. “We do what sells,” she said.

Something Old, Something New

Laura Klibanow, an MBA student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, cashed in her equity in an emerging tech company that started as a class project to pursue something even sweeter:   making mandelbrot cookies in a kosher kitchen.

The result is Libby & Laura, a boutique bakery launched in September that produces three kinds of handmade mandelbrot using a traditional recipe. “I thought, `If I can make it kosher and good, I’d have a homerun,’ ” said Klibanow, who was part of a student team that commercialized a vacuum insulation panel for use in refrigerated trucks. “It takes a lot of money, time and research to bring a technology like that to market,” Klibanow said. “For different reasons, this is what I’d rather be doing.”

With retailers asking for additional kosher baker products, Klibanow is perfecting a brownie recipe. Her mandelbrot, which is similar to biscotti, sells online for $3.95 for four ounces or $7.99 for 12 ounces. It’s available in three flavors: chocolate chip, double chocolate double nut, and white chocolate cranberry pistachio.

Get Local Chicago

Jake Elster of Crop to Cup and Get Local

Get Local Chicago is all about pulling locally made products together to boost distribution. The collaborative effort distributes food and beverages from 20 different vendors. “Our strategy is to allow fans of these local brands to find them more easily,” said Jake Elster, co-founder of Crop to Cup coffee, who launched Get Local as a way to help local food makers sell to corporations. “We’re trying to make it more accessible to support the local market,” Elster said. Among the vendors participating in the effort include Vosges Chocolate, Rare Bird Preserves, Hilary’s Cookies, Das Foods, Bean&Body Coffee, BeeLine Urban Honey, Beyond the Shaker Salt Sampler, Crop to Cup coffee, Frontera Kitchen Chipotle Salsa, Ineeka Himalayan Tea and Magnolia Spice Tea.

Seed Money From Severance

Trouble finding suitable motorcycle clothing for women spurred Denise Maple to launch VaVaVroom, which offers apparel and accessories with a biker theme. Maple started the company while working for Bank of America, then decided to make the business her full-time job when she received a severance package three years ago. Her “Those Girls” hour-glass T-shirts sell for $26 at When the recession impacted the auto industry, avid motorcyclist Mike Screens of Romeoville gave up looking for a job and launched Biker Boot Straps to hold cyclists pants in place when they ride. “Every time I drove my motorcycle on the highway, my pants were flopping up to my knees. So I came up with a solution,” Screens said.

Gadgets made locally

Palos Park-based Loggerhead Tools often combines several tools in one to come up with useful new gadgets. Its Bionic Wrench, available at Sears stores, adjusts to 18 sizes, while the company’s ImmiX Life Gear has a 34-tools-in-one design that folds like a pocket knife.

All Loggerhead Tools are made in the U.S. The tools, which retail for $20 to $75, might cost more than imports, but their unique, patented design distinguishes them. “If you’ve created value, you can get value in the marketplace for it,” said Dan Brown, chief executive.

That’s also been the case for Spero Pavlopoulos’ Jolex Enterprises and its Brugo mug.

The Brugo mug, designed to prevent scalding, was created by a Chicagoan; photo courtesy of Brugo

Pavlopoulos, an engineer who has worked for his father’s tool and die manufacturing company in Alsip for 25 years, created a portable mug designed to prevent scalding. Upon being tilted, the mug pours a small amount of coffee into a chamber in the   lip that cools the coffee before it hits the consumer’s mouth. A tight seal keeps the rest of the liquid hot, until the mug’s “tip and sip” motion brings an ounce or two into the chamber, Pavlopoulos said.

“Everybody has a coffee mug, but we’re the only travel mug that has a cooling chamber,” he said. Consumers can adjust the lid to one of three positions: lock, sip, or tip and cool.