Rebuilding Peoria: The Next Phase

by Caryl Schlicher

Cultivating an ecosystem in which innovation is the norm.

For decades, we Peorians have discussed ways to diversify and strengthen the Peoria economy, and much has been accomplished. Now, an ever-growing group of innovators are developing the next great phase of expansion. It’s called Startup Peoria.

If you want to envision their idea immediately, you can begin with two words: Silicon Valley. The phrase symbolizes high-tech innovation and rapid entrepreneurial development. Unfortunately, it has also symbolized the brain drain we have suffered here, as the best talent in digital technology has felt compelled to leave Peoria to build a career.

But two local residents are determined to stop that exodus and make Peoria the high-tech success it deserves to be. They are building upon high-tech initiatives and assets already established here, developing even more specific programs that convert vision into reality—and other well-placed Peorians are rallying around the effort. Jake Hamann, CEO of OneFire Inc., a digital media company specializing in content and applications for the post-PC era, and Amy Lambert, director of learning/creative technologist at OneFire, are spearheading these additional efforts, which currently consist of:

  • Collaboration. Startup Peoria plans to drive collaboration by keeping a clear eye on emerging opportunities for central Illinois technologists—coders, designers, artisans, makers, engineers, marketers, or CFOs. These individuals with different types of expertise can also begin to use a site called the Startup Genome to locate and collaborate with each other (startupgenome.com).
  • Mentors. The healthiest startup ecosystems create a strong connection between new entrepreneurs and those who have “been there, done that.” Startup Peoria’s mentoring program, “Office Hours,” will connect learners to subject matter experts. Mentor lists are being formed now.
  • Events. Startup Peoria also promotes education and social connections through recurring events: “Three Hats” luncheons that delve into design, development and business trends; “Industry Drinks” after-work gatherings; and “Startup Peoria Women” dinners that connect women in the field of technology. With inclusion being a strong focus, it is not surprising that attendees come from a variety of digital spectrums. Conversations can quickly jump from 3D printing and biotech to application design and robotics.
  • Education. Project | Rocket Science, a 21st-century learning lab, will explore new business thinking by engaging creativity, collaboration and technology. The curriculum is designed to help entrepreneurs create new business models and products, understand their customers, and develop a stronger vision and team strategy.
  • Coworking. Cowork Peoria provides a supportive workspace for tech startups. With powerful and secure Wi-Fi, shared office resources, and energy-generating amenities, the space will enhance collaboration and push process speeds. But the real magic of Cowork Peoria will be found in the synergy of tech startups working elbow to elbow. Both serendipity and collaborative energy will breed new thinking, and, it is hoped, a few new business models as well.
  • Funding. With any startup situation, funding is a challenge. Startup Peoria looks to ease that burden by educating tech entrepreneurs about investment, helping them with proformas and pitch documents, and getting them “investment-ready.” Further along, Startup Peoria hopes to find new mechanisms for connecting startups with larger capital investments.

Future plans include Startup Weekends, where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas on Friday night to a room full of coders, designers, marketing experts and other business-savvy individuals. These participants then form teams to further develop a launch plan for each idea. Strategies could include web and/or app design, further development of the sales pitch, logistical plans, etc. Then, at a Sunday night dinner, potential investors hear each pitch. The goal is that one or more ideas will secure financial and strategic support for a successful launch.

 

In addition, Hamann and Lambert envision the creation of high-tech apprenticeship programs, offices equipped with 3D printing and more. They also stress that they want to assist not only entrepreneurs but intrapreneurs as well, which they define as “individuals within a large corporation who take direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation.”

Origins and Opportunities
Inspiration for this “movement” comes from Brad Feld, author of the book Startup Communities, which promotes the creation of startup communities throughout the United States. Startup Peoria is also affiliated with a federal initiative called Startup America, which promotes innovation and entrepreneurship across the country. Hamann, who serves as a regional champion for Illinois, says, “Our partnership with Startup America not only increases the visibility of startup efforts across the state, but specifically brings attention to the efforts taking place here in the Peoria region. Startup America is looking to us as a case study of how their tools and processes can be leveraged to truly transform an entire community in the tech startup space.”

According to Lambert, Peoria is well-positioned to accomplish the goal. “The opportunities for the tech industry in central Illinois are deep-rooted and growing,” she explains. “We have been educating and employing great technologists and engineering problem solvers for decades. Yet the industry is often overlooked. Many of Illinois Central College’s programs in web design are led by Professor Mark DuBois, one of the strongest education leaders for web development in the nation. He also holds titles such as education leader for the World Organization of Webmasters and Adobe education leader… Then, of course, we also have great programs at Robert Morris University, Eureka College and Bradley University.

“While Bradley University’s Turner Center for Entrepreneurship is shining a spotlight on startups, its Department of Interactive Media graduates students who leave directly for the west coast, hoping to land jobs at high-end production studios like Pixar or to game design leaders like Bethesda. Imagine for a moment if we retained that talent to build this creative tech industry here. Now imagine that technical talent applied to other industries, like healthcare, manufacturing, agribusiness, and transportation and logistics.”

Referring to the influx of support from local, state and national leaders, Hamann says, “We are thrilled with the amount of support and momentum that we have gained. As Startup Peoria continues to grow, we look forward to truly making a difference within our evolving community.” iBi

Caryl Schlicher is a freelance writer, editor and communication coach at A Bridge To Excellence (a-bridge-to-excellence.com) in Peoria. To learn more about Startup Peoria, call (309) 740-0345 or visit startuppeoria.com.

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