A Publication of WTVP

Accelerating Greater Peoria’s Economy

by Chris Setti | Illustration by Scott Shepler |
Sept. Econ Corner_detail

Central Illinois has become an innovative, entrepreneurial place, and someday we’ll look back and say, ‘I was there and look at them now’

It’s been a big summer for entrepreneurship and innovation in Greater Peoria.

In June, Distillery Labs hosted its Startup Showcase, which featured the first public pitches of 10 great startup companies that graduated from the gBETA business accelerator program. On Aug. 17, the startup community once again gathered to celebrate the start of construction of Distillery Labs. And to top it all off, Doug Cruitt was announced as the next executive director of Distillery Labs. Bradley University’s Turner Center for Entrepreneurship capped this run off with its annual small business awards, so wonderfully captured by this edition of Peoria Magazine.

High-performing economies do three things right: Support existing businesses, attract new companies, and nurture startups

That’s four great chapters in an even better book about how we are working to launch the next iteration of the Greater Peoria economy. So why should you care?

Innovation is the seed of future growth, and that growth will result in economic success.

High-performing economies do three things right. One, they support their existing businesses and help them grow. Two, they become home to new companies that choose to take advantage of local assets. And three, they nurture scalable startups from the ground up. The Distillery Labs initiative is a region-wide effort to tackle that last piece — growing our own future foundational elements.

Think for just a moment about the importance of Caterpillar to Greater Peoria. A century ago, Caterpillar was a fairly small startup itself, pioneering new technology and slowly changing the world. As a company, they valued innovation and created systems and resources that ensured they were always on the cutting edge of machinery technology. Their manufacturing abilities are certainly critical, but making bulldozers, tractors and mining trucks is an outcome of innovation. As breakthroughs developed, Caterpillar manufacturing was there to make them into products.

A more recent example is Natural Fiber Welding (NFW). Born out of some research that was brought first to Bradley University by Dr. Luke Haverhals, NFW is in the process of disrupting one of the world’s largest industries. I first met Dr. Haverhals and Steve Zika seven or eight years ago when they were tenants of Peoria NEXT with just a handful of employees. Fast-forward to the present, and NFW employs more than 200 people, has recruited another 25 to move to Peoria to work for them, and occupies nearly 200,000 square feet of space in four different buildings.

NFW’s story is a great Peoria story: Not only were they able to start their company here, they were able to scale it here. Where will they be in another 10 or 20 years?

Like big, multinational corporations, regions can foster innovation and facilitate the growth of startups. Distillery Labs is not alone in this work and joins an amazing group of organizations and individuals who are working to uncover, lift up, and champion innovators in our region.

But like Peoria NEXT 15-plus years ago, Distillery Labs is symbolic that Greater Peoria is serious about innovation. We have pillars of innovation in our region, like Caterpillar’s Tech Center, the Ag Lab, the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Bradley University, and OSF Innovation. Even better, we have amazing people with great ideas and passion for disruption and innovation, both within those pillars and outside of them.

while our startup efforts are helping to accelerate individual companies, in truth, they are accelerating our entire economy

Distillery Labs and its partners will help unlock that talent, those ideas, and those future businesses. And when we do it right, Greater Peoria’s startup ecosystem won’t just be for our own citizens but will attract startups from around the nation and world. In startup parlance, that will get the flywheel spinning.

As I stood before the crowd at the Startup Showcase, I marveled at the 10 startups who were giving their pitches. I reflected that one day not so long ago, NFW was making its first pitch. And a much longer time ago than that, Benjamin Holt was giving his first pitch about a little tractor company. In 10 years’ time, maybe the people who attended the Showcase will be able to say, “I was there when that company gave its first pitch, and look at them now.” Because while our startup efforts are helping to accelerate individual companies, in truth, they are accelerating our entire economy.

Chris Setti

Chris Setti

is CEO of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.