More to Peoria's Tech Scene Than Meets the Eye

by Mark Hemmer
ONEFIRE
Above, first-place team Hardware Engineers FTW was awarded $1,000 and a 3D-printed trophy at the Peoria Civic Hackathon in August 2017. Photo courtesy of City of Peoria

“The Silicon Prairie” is real, and it’s here in Peoria.

The Whiskey City. Peoria has a few nicknames, but that one nods proudly to the city’s rich history as a distillery hub and bustling river town. From the newly-opened Tannins & Hops in the Warehouse District to the bright-red lettering on the Pere Marquette hotel, Peoria’s history in its pre- and post-Prohibition years is celebrated across the city today. There were the days of vaudeville theatre and the lasting cultural impact of Peoria native Richard Pryor. There’s the Steamboat Classic and the Santa Claus Parade. There is more notable history than can reasonably fit in a space smaller than a textbook. Peoria’s past is packed. Its history is rich. But its future is flying under the radar.

Perhaps partly due to its vivid past, Peoria’s present and future receive little fanfare. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s nothing happening. In fact, the opposite is true: Peoria has one of the region’s liveliest technology scenes, hiding in plain sight. “The Silicon Prairie” is real, and it’s here in Peoria. From organizations like Startup Greater Peoria, to programs within the Department of Interactive Media at Bradley University, there are countless ways to become involved with emerging technology in the area.

A Community of Tech Talent
On August 12th of this year, the Peoria Civic Center drew a large crowd for the Peoria Civic Hackathon. There, individuals or teams were asked to tackle a local challenge. Given a set of data and some loose guidelines, participants created a website, app or another tool that would solve for the challenge. Hackathons are a popular tool for inspiring companies and communities to work together to creatively solve difficult challenges using technology. Peoria’s recent Hackathon—and its impressive turnout—is demonstrative of an active, passionate tech scene.

“Peoria has a history of being a test market for the entertainment industry because of its nationally representative demographics. Today, it has become a testbed for innovation because it faces many of the same challenges as large cities,” says Peter Kobak, project manager with the City of Peoria’s Innovation Team. “Peoria’s smaller size means there are fewer bureaucratic hoops to jump through and that the culture has fostered a close-knit community eager to collaborate.”

Mobile Mount
Andrew Hoerr and Wes Hoerr, founders of Mobile Mount, won a $10,000 grant at Startup GP’s last Keystart Pitch Competition. They plan to use the award for the proof-of-concept phase of their product, a mountable smartphone holder for stadium seats that doubles as advertising space.

 

Startup Greater Peoria exists to help scalable startups find the resources necessary to grow. Those involved with a tech project or company in the Peoria area can leverage the resources the organization offers. Aspiring entrepreneurs and groups can apply to be part of a Keystart event—where participants compete in a pitch competition for a $10,000 grant. Startup GP also puts on local mixers for entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts to get together and network. The Nest, located in the Warehouse District, gives the tech community another gathering spot. A coworking space with high-speed internet and plenty of snacks, The Nest fosters collaboration. Overall, Startup GP encourages tech-scene growth by connecting budding entrepreneurs to accelerators, mentors and capital.

Near Dozer Park in the Warehouse District, River City Labs is a “makerspace” located within a nondescript building that conceals the magic going on inside. In contrast to resources like Startup GP, River City Labs is a space designed for exploration more than concrete business plans. It’s an ecosystem where technological curiosity and community collide, giving way to discoveries and big ideas that could make a real impact in the market. It also serves as a talent incubator, allowing hobbyists and hackers to come together to play around with emerging technologies like 3D printing, robotics and all varieties of hardware.


The annual FUSE show allows students in the Department of Interactive Media at Bradley University to share their work with the community. Photo by Meredith Messina

 

Over on the Hilltop, tech talent comes to Peoria from all over. Bradley University has quietly been expanding and enhancing its Interactive Media programs, and the results are evident. Many Bradley graduates are taking what they learned and contributing immediately to the growing tech scene in Peoria. Bradley serves as a launch pad for the bright tech talent that can be found all over the region.

“When I arrived from New York City, I was very pleasantly surprised by the level and quality of Peoria-based tech talent,” notes Ethan Ham, Department Chair of Interactive Media at Bradley. “There are tech startups like ONEFIRE and Float, plenty of tech people telecommuting in Peoria, plus the talent that lives in larger corporations like Caterpillar, Maui Jim, RLI and more.”

A Place to Grow
Peoria and the surrounding area is home to many up-and-coming technology startups. At ONEFIRE, headquartered in the Warehouse District, the current focus is on building augmented reality and virtual reality experiences. The company has always stayed on top of the latest trends, exploring real-world use cases for emerging technology. Whether it’s touch screens, AR, VR, wearables or beyond, ONEFIRE’s team finds out how to leverage it to help businesses. The technology might change, but the aim doesn’t: building products and experiences that help its clients win. The enormous enterprise potential of AR and VR is something the company is busy capitalizing on.

“We’re developing digital solutions on behalf of our customers, but we’re also in the process of developing our own product within the AR/VR space,” says ONEFIRE CEO Jason Parkinson. “Peoria is a great place to launch and grow a company.”


Inside the makerspace at River City Labs. Photo by Kelli Drake

No matter one’s interest level, expertise or goal, Peoria’s tech scene has the organizations and resources for all. City-driven events like the Civic Hackathon draw crowds and paint a picture of the future. Community builders like Startup GP provide collaborative opportunities, funds and support. River City Labs gives anyone a chance to test out new technologies in their free time. Bradley University is hard at work preparing the next generation of tech talent. And new startups are creating products and experiences that will help make others notice the passionate work that’s happening in Peoria.

Peoria’s past is storied. Its present is a tech scene that rivals any in the country. Innovation is happening in the heartland. Organizations and individuals are using technology to solve challenges for the city, for the enterprise, for everyone. While there’s plenty to say about Peoria’s history, there’s as much, or more, to say about Peoria’s future. iBi

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