Bretford was good at providing power for AV equipment, and it evolved from carts to furniture, outfitting things like conference rooms and computer labs in schools.
Last year, it received patents for a power strip used in classrooms to allow multiple laptop users to plug in safely from a single outlet, as well as mobile lockers used by schools and companies to recharge and protect tablets and laptops.
The company claims to have begun selling the first commercial charging cart for laptops in 1999. The charging cart almost didn't survive, but then the company landed a partnership with Apple in 2008. The carts have evolved, allowing for machines to be updated automatically and have data wiped between uses. Bretford developed software to allow customers to manage the devices remotely.
The coronavirus has schools focused less on carts needed to haul and store computers on-site, but Bretford is getting a lift from corporate users, such as hospitals and manufacturers. With more employees working from AG亚洲国际游戏home, its lockers fill a different need: touchless tech support. "If a computer breaks, they can just drop off a computer for a no-touch swap," Petrick says.
2. UPTAKE TECHNOLOGIES
What it does: Data-analytics software for industrial companies | Patents last year: 15
Uptake Technologies helps companies keep their equipment running by having a better idea of when it might fail.
Groupon co-founder Brad Keywell launched the company in 2014 using Big Data to improve industrial performance. Uptake uses data captured by sensors on trains, construction equipment, wind turbines, trucks and the like to save companies money by making their machines perform better.
Several of the innovations that landed Uptake on Crain's Most Innovative Companies list are linked to its Radar product, which monitors vast amounts of data coming from sensors on rail cars, trucks and other equipment, applying algorithms to the information.
"We're able to see patterns in data leading up to failure," says Brian Silva, a director of data science at Chicago-based Uptake. "For on-highway trucks, unplanned failures can be very expensive repairs."
The company says it saved one customer $50,000 engine replacements by recommending $8,000 repairs. Uptake estimates its software helps customers reduce maintenance costs by as much as $1,250 a year per truck.
Uptake also developed a way to do virtual load tests on locomotives, rather than pulling them out of service.
"Industrial data is different from other kinds of data," says Dennis Lee, Uptake's deputy general counsel. "There are so many challenges: in gathering it, processing it, then providing it to the customer in a way that's useful."
Uptake, which grew to more than 800 employees in its early days but has shrunk to about one-third of that size, has generated 33 U.S. patents, including 15 granted last year. One of those patents, for determining health scores for equipment or systems, was cited in patents by IBM, Equifax and others.
What it does: Retail shelf display systems Patents last year: 12
Walk into a store, and RTC's innovation is all around you. For decades, the Rolling Meadows-based company has been making retail shelves smarter, sturdier and easier to stock.
It's one of the top makers of retail displays—customized wood, metal and plastic devices that show off and dispense everything from drink bottles and razor blades to shoes and audio equipment. The company also has been a top performer on Crain's Most Innovative Companies list for the past five years.
Recent innovations include pushing the internet of things from the loading dock to the store shelf.
"There is incredible pressure on physical retail to become more and more cost- and space-efficient," says CEO Richard Nathan, whose father, Walter, founded the company in 1950 as a maker of cardboard tubes. "Our patents can bring inventory tracking and reporting down to the individual product, which then allows the store to react more quickly to low- or out-of-stock product. Out-of-stocks on a store visit is another sale for Amazon."
RTC received a patent last year on a wireless-communication hub that allows retailers to receive real-time information from sensors on store shelves. The technology, which is related to earlier innovations that included bringing digital messaging capabilities to the edges of shelves, gives stores the ability to communicate with customers, manage inventory and disseminate real-time video images to deter theft.
"We believe there are countless opportunities to leverage wireless technology, a network of sensors and intelligent software. We don't understand what all of the opportunities are, but we are ready to implement solutions as we figure it out," Nathan says.