Every business can be reinvented, whether it’s light bulbs, farm equipment, baby strollers, bicycles or hair coloring. You’ll find them all in Crain’s annual ranking of the Most Innovative Companies in the Chicago area. With the help of Ocean Tomo, a Chicago-based merchant bank that specializes in intellectual property, we scour the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office database in search of market-disrupting innovators. This year’s ranking is especially wide-ranging, from software and manufacturing to insurance and consumer products. 

1. Dawn Equipment

Year Founded: 1992

Headquarters: Sycamore

Patents Awarded in 2016: 4

What It Does: Makes high-tech equipment for planting crops that improves farm machinery

Driving isn’t the only thing that’s going to be autonomous. Planting crops also will be done on autopilot, and a small family-owned company is leading the way. That’s why Dawn Equipment topped Crain’s latest list of the most innovative Chicago-area companies, based on an analysis of patents. Ocean Tomo, a local merchant banking firm that specializes in evaluating intellectual property, looked at patents filed last year.

Dawn, based just outside DeKalb in Sycamore, has reinvented many of the systems on the planting equipment used by farmers. Most recently it came up with a way for farmers to adjust, on the fly, the depth that seeds are planted, or how hard soil is pinched or compacted on top of them instead of stopping the machine and adjusting equipment manually. That saves time, and changes are made not on guesswork but based on soil conditions.

“Running a corn planter is the single most important thing a farmer does all year,” says Joe Bassett, 37, CEO of the company, which was founded by his father and two partners in 1992. “The most important thing that determines yield for a farmer is how uniformly the plants grow. We built the first fully robotic corn planter, which will pave the way for fully autonomous corn planting.”

Dawn is a supplier to several farm machinery manufacturers including Moline-based Deere. One of its early hits was a yield monitor for corn harvesting equipment. It now makes the top-selling device for controlling down pressure on planters, Bassett says. But it’s not just betting on Big Ag. The company also is innovating in the organic farming business that’s largely done by small farmers. Among its four patents last year was a device for no-till farming that mows down and weaves together cover crops, such as rye grass, into a mat on either side of a row where a primary crop is to be planted, keeping weeds at bay.

“Organic is the fastest-growing segment in agriculture,” Bassett says of the company’s Dawn Biologic unit, which “is looking at the future of farming if you’re farming 50 to 500 acres. The majority of revenue comes from other stuff. This is really a growing business.”

Dawn is an inventor’s company. His father, Jim, designed products at Deere, Toro and paving equipment maker Barber Greene before starting his own company. Bassett, who worked on computer assisted design programs as a teenager, studied physics at the University of Iowa and went into computing before returning to the family business in 2003.

Bassett now owns the company, which he calls “delightfully small,” with annual sales of $15 million to $20 million and 40 to 50 employees.

The company is on track to post its most profitable year, he says, even though it spends as much as 25 percent of revenue on product development. “There’s no R&D budget,” he says. “I hate the ‘innovation’ fetish. Innovation is what you have to do to stay in business. We have a great time doing it. I design a lot of products myself.”