3 Chicago companies in TechStars Chicago's inaugural class

Project Fixup, SimpleRelevance and SocialCrunch were among 904 applicants

TechStars Chicago, formerly Excelerate Labs, will announce Thursday its first class of 10 startups under its new brand, which will include the Chicago-based companies: Project Fixup, SimpleRelevance and SocialCrunch.

More than 900 startups applied to be a part of the three-month boot camp, more than double the number of applicants for the 2012 program.

SocialCrunch, co-founded by Alex Griffiths and Jock McEwan, has raised just under $500,000 and has five employees, Griffiths said. Among the investors is John Roa, founder of AKTA Web Studio. And among SocialCrunch's advisers is Emerson Spartz, a digital media publisher and founder of MuggleNet, the most popular Harry Potter website, which he started at age 12.

SocialCrunch, a market data provider, launched in January. The site asks people to reveal everything from preferences — Do you prefer Coke or Pepsi? — to hyper-private details, such as whether you've ever driven drunk or stolen something.

The company turns that information into a game, providing such facts as: Did you know 90 percent of your friends prefer Coke? Griffiths, the CEO, said the company hopes to sell data from and analysis of the answers to marketers. When asked about privacy concerns, Griffiths said the company doesn't connect a user's name to his or her answers.

"We're not interested in your identity against your answers," he said. "We're interested in trends."

Project Fixup, a dating site, comes out of the University of Chicago. Co-founded by Sarah Press and Alan Illing, the company organizes one-on-one dates, called fixups, and charges $15 per date. There's no "profile" — only members of the Project Fixup team see the answers to your questionnaire.

"We deferred entirely to Sam on this one, and he liked the concept," said Troy Henikoff, referring to his fellow TechStars Chicago co-founder, Sam Yagan, CEO of Match.com's parent company.

SimpleRelevance, founded by Erik Severinghaus, helps companies customize emailed pitches, discounts and new product offerings. Severinghaus previously founded KoalaDeal, which helped users prioritize the deluge of daily deals arriving in their inbox. That company failed in 2011, but its technology is being repurposed for SimpleRelevance.

"A typical business will have anywhere between tens-of-thousands to tens-of-millions of email addresses," Severinghaus said. "By plugging into our technology, we can tell them, for each address, what time of day the person is most likely to open that email, what content they are most likely to engage with, what words in the subject line will catch their attention and what they are most likely to buy."

Golf and tax breaks

Someone dubbed it "the country club exemption."

And the six-year legal battle over it appears to be coming to a close.

The Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, founded in the 1890s, has decided not to appeal an unfavorable March ruling, according to the club's attorney. The court's decision amounted to a compromise between giving private golf courses a sweeping break on their property taxes versus taxing them to the hilt on everything but the fairways and greens.

Illinois law clearly defines golf courses as "open spaces," thus most of Onwentsia's approximately 180 acres are subject to a huge tax break. ("Land is considered open space if it is more than 10 acres and ... conserves landscaped areas, such as public and private golf courses.")

Before 2006, the Lake County assessor's office deemed all property owned by a golf course as open space. In Onwentsia's case, that meant that the pool, the driveway, the tennis courts and even the horse stables, which no longer exist, were taxed at a far lower rate. But that year, the Lake County agency changed its position and began taxing these amenities based on their "fair-market value as a residential use."

The fight continued under three Onwentsia presidents: Retired Northern Trust executive Arthur Wood Jr.; architect Stephen Wright; and now Alexander Stuart, president of North Star Investments and former president of the Conway Farms development in Lake Forest. The club is represented by Stephen Novack of Novack and Macey.

Real money is involved. For instance, a 3.85-acre tax parcel that previously would have been valued at $3,850 for tax purposes was now being valued at $861,594 for tax purposes, according to the court.

"Our property taxes have come close to doubling in the last six years," said Stuart, a former club treasurer, who declined to reveal specific numbers.

Initially, the country club got a favorable ruling. Had that ruling stood, local taxing districts would have lost about $6.7 million in revenue, applying 2011 rates, from Cook County golf courses and country clubs alone, according to the Cook County assessor's office.

Instead, an Illinois appellate court in March ruled that the breaks had gone too far. The court determined that the pool, tennis facilities and riding-related areas couldn't count as open space. But the concession stand on the golf course, known as a halfway house, and the caddy shack could.

Left to be decided by the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board is whether the maintenance buildings, parking lots, driveways and the clubhouse are "open spaces."

So as to avoid any misunderstanding, the court added this instruction on those remaining items: "For example, a maintenance building where the lawnmowers that cut the golf course are kept would facilitate the existence of the golf course (and thus qualify as open space); conversely, one that stores cleaning supplies for the pool would not."

Melissa Harris can be reached at mharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential

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