Invention and Innovation

by Chris Setti
Greater Peoria Economic Development Council

When people think about entrepreneurship, they often focus on inventions. They think of the tinkerer, toiling away in his or her garage on some new, never-before-seen product. Or a software guru creating an entirely new way of sharing information among friends. There is no doubt that invention—and inventors—are a crucial component of any economy. But just as important are the innovators.

In a 2012 article for MediaShift Idea Lab, digital entrepreneur Tom Grasty discussed the difference between an “invention” and an “innovation.” An invention, he said, is the creation of a product or process for the very first time. Think of Thomas Edison and the phonograph or light bulb, or Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone. Innovation, however, takes that invention and makes it better. Steve Jobs and Apple did not invent the telephone or the computer, but innovated on both to give us one of our most powerful modern tools. Grasty puts it this way: “If invention is a pebble tossed in the pond, innovation is the rippling effect that pebble causes. Someone has to toss the pebble. That's the inventor. Someone has to recognize the ripple will eventually become a wave. That's the entrepreneur.”

While we certainly need to encourage invention, an economy really benefits when those inventions find a market and evolve, through innovation, to meet demands. The track-type tractor was not invented in Peoria—Benjamin Holt created his products in Stockton, California. But Holt opened a factory to build them here, and after a merger with C.L. Best, the Caterpillar we now know was born. As Caterpillar continued to refine and improve its products, it found new markets, like construction and mining, that needed that same innovative approach. A company that once built farm implements is now building fully self-driving mining vehicles. It is that innovation which became the bedrock of Greater Peoria’s economy.

We continue to see both invention and innovation at work in shaping our future. Importantly, in Peoria we don’t just make things—we develop them. Three main industries serve as the foundation of our economy: manufacturing, healthcare and agriculture. In each, our companies are harnessing their entrepreneurial spirit to create new products and processes. Caterpillar’s Tech Center in Mossville is home to over 1,000 engineers changing the face of manufacturing. The medical professionals at OSF and UnityPoint are not just treating patients, they are developing new ways to fight and prevent illness and improve health outcomes. In agriculture, the newly bolstered workforce at the Ag Lab is finding new ways of utilizing crops, while companies like 360 Yield Center and Precision Planting work to improve harvests.

It isn’t just the big companies, though. In Peoria, the scientists and engineers at Natural Fiber Welding have invented a process that transforms natural fibers like cotton and silk to imbed them with properties more commonly associated with man-made materials like polyester. Their invention is revolutionizing the entire textile industry.

Across the river in Morton, AutonomouStuff is a widely recognized leader in the world of autonomous vehicles. You can now find AutonomouStuff products and processes incorporated into vehicles being developed and built around the globe. Their innovative approach was recently rewarded when they were acquired by Hexagon, a Swedish company that is a giant in the world of autonomous systems. Hexagon has vowed to keep and grow AutonomouStuff in Greater Peoria. And Tremont-based Digital Dipstick was recently awarded a six-figure grant from the National Science Foundation to develop their Digital Oil Level Indicator (DOLI) for farm equipment.

Our region is blessed with ingenuity that results in both invention and innovation. This is the future of our economy. There are ways you can support these efforts. Encourage dreams. Share your story. Provide advice and guidance. Invest. Want to learn more? Check out how the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council is helping support invention and innovation at startupgp.org. iBi

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