A Catalyst for Peoria’s Innovation Ecosystem

by Henry Vicary
Caterpillar Inc.

Our region needs a destination hub where today’s workforce can prototype new ideas and share knowledge with the next generation.

When I pass the construction site along I-74 on my drive to Caterpillar’s headquarters in Peoria from my home in Morton, I see a lot of Caterpillar’s yellow iron. While some of you may not look at it as fondly as I do—especially if this construction is adding a few minutes to your commute—this sight makes me proud. It’s not just seeing these big machines… I take great pride in the world-class people who made these innovative products possible, many of them right here in the Peoria area.

Our region also has world-class people in healthcare, education, banking, and the building and construction trades. Some of our best and brightest run their own small businesses, from technology to the arts. When you think of Caterpillar, you probably don’t think of “small business,” but we invest in new ventures serving our industries every day, including analytics, robotics, additive manufacturing, etc.

Caterpillar is committed to this region and dedicated to growth throughout the area. Along with the company’s long-term growth, we want to see more businesses created in here. Peoria has a lot to offer new businesses and those looking for an impactful career in central Illinois.

In order to enhance opportunities in the future, Peoria needs a destination hub where today’s innovative workforce can test and prototype their new ideas, as well as share their knowledge with members of the next generation. Thanks to the leadership of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council (EDC) and the support of the Peoria community, a place like this is on the horizon.

Catalyst: a person or thing that precipitates an event or change
The Greater Peoria EDC has made a tremendous and positive impact on our region. Its leadership on talent attraction and job creation is making a difference every day. And now, as part of its Startup Peoria program, the Greater Peoria EDC is developing plans to open Catalyst, an entrepreneurial and innovation center in Peoria’s Warehouse District. The center, which will be focused on ages 12 and up, can be accessed by anyone through a reasonable monthly fee—think of it like a health club or gym membership. I know this sounds like a very big idea. Let me show you how it’s more feasible than you may think.

What will Catalyst be?

  • It will be a makerspace housing a STEAM lab (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and programs that encourage prototyping, manufacturing and an exploration of the latest in technology and tools.
  • It will be an expanded coworking space with a diverse series of entrepreneurship programs. From youth entrepreneurship to a startup accelerator and ongoing mentorship connections, it will foster the entrepreneurial spirit as well as provide practical opportunities for development.
  • It will be an art studio containing a gallery and apprenticeship program for high school students in our most underserved populations, offering entrepreneurial and soft skills training along with the support system needed for a productive pathway to adulthood.

Why does Greater Peoria need Catalyst?

  • It will benefit those who have dreamed of beginning or growing their small business. They’ll have access to an innovative place where they can prototype their ideas and even small production in an inexpensive way. Catalyst will provide access they wouldn’t typically have.
  • It will inspire the next generation. Being in the heavy equipment capital of the world, we need to inspire young people to become interested in manufacturing careers, and part of getting them excited is providing hands-on opportunities. Let’s be honest: everyone likes to create and make things! But not everyone has access to equipment allowing them to do so. Most school districts don’t have the funding for a well-outfitted workshop with 3D printers, robotics and so on.
  • It will leverage the brain trust in our region. Think of those who have retired, whether from Caterpillar or another business, and continue to call Peoria home. Their expertise is invaluable, and the mentorship they’ll provide will make a true impact.

Why is Caterpillar involved?

  • Peoria is our home—and Catalyst will be an excellent investment in it. Very early on, we felt Catalyst needed to be located in the heart of our region to help spur development. It will serve as an anchor, not only for downtown, but for the budding Warehouse District.
  • We’re dedicated to the workforce of today and tomorrow. While Catalyst will help our ability to attract bright new talent, it will also benefit the talent already working here today. At Caterpillar, we have some of the most innovative people who will be able to use this space as a creative outlet outside of work, enabling them to push their skillsets.
  • Caterpillar is not just a manufacturing company— it’s a technology company. We invest in new ventures serving our industries every day. How great would it be if the next technological innovation we invest in was born right here in Peoria?

What’s next?
Catalyst could open as early as the end of 2017. Several sub-teams kicked off preparations late last year. Next, there will be a feasibility study by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, which will provide opportunities for federal grants. By the end of this year we will know if the project is feasible, and from there, we will move forward with a capital campaign and an official request for a building.

We see Catalyst as one more piece of the Peoria fabric, filled with people launching new products and spurring our community’s imagination. It will be an incubator for businesses which I hope will flourish and provide more jobs in the region.

Most importantly, I think of the next generation in this region: our children. While their paths may lead in many directions, we want Peoria to be a destination hub for innovation and progress. With Catalyst, everyone can create something big—maybe something even bigger than the great Caterpillar yellow iron at work along I-74. iBi

Henry Vicary is Guest & Community Relations Director at Caterpillar Inc. To learn more about the Greater Peoria EDC, visit greaterpeoriaedc.org. To read more stories about Caterpillar in the community, visit caterpillar.com/ourhome.