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Welcome to the Innovation Edition

Saluting the restless who endlessly search for better ways

by Peoria Magazine |

The Peoria area has long been a place of tinkerers and free- thinkers, people known to sometimes reject the conventional wisdom and look for other, potentially better ways. Call it a rebellious streak.

If the Duryea brothers were happy with getting around by horse and buggy, presumably they wouldn’t have gone to work on the first gasoline-powered automobile in a barn over by Bradley University.

If Betty Friedan had been a content and unquestioning housewife, she wouldn’t have sat down to write The Feminine Mystique.

If Richard Pryor had seen his life the same as many others did, perhaps he wouldn’t have pioneered a wholly different path in American comedy.

If losing countless soldiers due to infection from their wounds in World War II had been an acceptable status quo, Andrew J. Moyers and his team at Peoria’s Ag Lab may not have felt the urgency they clearly did to come up with a way to mass produce penicillin. Your great-grandparents, and their children, and their children, and frankly those of us still standing today owe them a “thank you.”

The April issue of Peoria Magazine is our annual Innovation edition, and in it we celebrate the congenitally restless folks who never stop striving to come up with a superior alternative.

We may tend to think of innovators as people in white lab coats peering into a microscope, or in oil-stained overalls hovering with a wrench over some contraption, or as the wild-eyed, Einstein-haired Emmett Lathrop “Doc” Brown, Ph.D. in the Back to the Future movie franchise.

Certainly, that is a part of the picture. But innovation comes in every size and shape and flavor.

It’s also Yeni Rodriguez drawing upon her immigrant experience to work her ice cream magic with a taste not previously imagined at Palarte in Peoria Heights. It’s gifted artist Lonnie Stewart starting with these lumps of clay and fashioning them into an utterly realistic model ready to jump out into a larger-than-life-size sculpture of the nation’s 26th president, or a saint, or a world-famous poet. It’s Dustin Crawford mixing cocktails like a chemist. It’s Kate Miles taking a new and different look at a quarter-century-old crime in her latest book. All of them are featured in this issue.

Of course, it can be very high Tech, too. It’s Peoria native Robbie Bach, decades down the road, having a significant hand in the development of Xbox at Microsoft. It’s Luke Haverhals taking his knowledge of chemistry from Bradley University and applying it to what’s grown in the fields around here with his Natural Fiber Welding, Inc., which promises to revolutionize an entire industry. It’s the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center shepherding companies like Midwest Bioprocessing Center. It’s the remarkable work in artificial intelligence and virtual reality coming out of Jump Simulation Center.

And it’s the granddaddy of them all, the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research – aka Peoria’s Ag Lab – hitting one R&D home run after another over the last 80 years, including its penicillin grand slam right out of the gate. It’s our cover story.

In fact, Peoria has long been an inventive place. In 2018, the publication 24/7 Wall Street put the Peoria area in its top 25 most innovative American cities, sandwiched between Boise, Idaho and Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., home to the famed Research Triangle. It did so based on data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the year 2015, which saw 3,321 patents coming out of this part of central Illinois, many of them from Caterpillar and the aforementioned Ag Lab.

What Peoria may have lacked, once upon a time, was an entrepreneurial culture, willing to take the necessary next steps of raising venture capital, getting research to market, and doing it here.

Fortunately, that has begun to change, thanks to entities such as BU’s Turner Center for Entrepreneurship, Peoria NEXT, OSF HealthCare and Peoria’s relatively new Distillery Lab “distilling ideas” and “launching companies.”

For that reason, it is fair to be optimistic about central Illinois’ economic future, and it’s why we’re excited to share this innovation- themed edition of Peoria Magazine.