Time to Change the Narrative

A new initiative aims to reposition the region through the renewed celebration of innovation, entrepreneurship and startup activity.
by Jake Hamann, Peoria Innovation Alliance
Inside Peoria's “Ag Lab,” December 1944. The mass production of penicillin was pioneered in Peoria at the USDA Research Laboratory, aided by the discovery of a particular type of mold found on a melon purchased at a local grocery market.
Inside Peoria's “Ag Lab,” December 1944. The mass production of penicillin was pioneered in Peoria at the USDA Research Laboratory. Photo courtesy of Peoria Public Library Local History Collection

Innovation is a popular word these days. Every community strives to be driven by an innovative spirit, but innovation is not a switch one can turn on and off. It is deeply rooted in who you are, what drives you and what your vision is for the future. Innovation sets Peoria apart, although that may not be obvious to the outside world—and is often not even recognized in our own backyard.

Innovation isn't new to Peoria. The Duryea automobile, the mass production of penicillin and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique are all well-known products of Peoria. But we haven't always capitalized on that heritage.

We live in a time when innovation may be the most powerful force on the planet. With technology moving at breakneck speed, it’s often hard to keep up with the changes we encounter on a daily basis. The Peoria Innovation Alliance embraces these changes and looks to boost the regional economy while restoring confidence and drive to an area that has long been a national leader, whether in distilling, manufacturing or even basketball.

Rise of the Rest
The narrative of our region needs to change. We can't dwell on where Caterpillar’s headquarters is located or the state of Illinois’ economy. We can't ignore taxation and pension challenges, but we do need to re-establish the Greater Peoria area as a community in which hard work, new ideas and a genuine concern for others can make a real difference. So, why is that important?

Just look across the country… where tech hubs are sprouting like cell towers. You’ll see cities like Omaha, Chattanooga and Cedar Rapids cited in the same breath as Silicon Valley, Austin and Boston. Even Steve Case, the billionaire founder of AOL, is taking to the road to highlight entrepreneurial activities in areas similar to ours through his “Rise of the Rest” bus tour. At each of the tour’s 38 stops, Case has awarded $100,000 to a deserving startup. More importantly, his presence brings attention to all the amazing activity and ideas happening in places that have typically been forgotten or ignored. 

It’s with that inspiration that the Peoria area must leverage and capitalize on the assets and industry expertise already here: in healthcare, manufacturing and agriculture, as well as e-commerce (Bump Boxes), sustainable goods (Natural Fiber Welding) and autonomous mobility (AutonomouStuff). Our goal is not to rubber-stamp what's already been accomplished, but to create new opportunities—and tout our successes both inside and outside the community.

And if you think the idea of promoting innovation sounds like an appeal only to science fair winners and math whizzes, think again. We’re talking about a united effort involving creativity and collaboration on every front—from the coffeeshop to the schoolroom to the boardroom.

BumpBoxes
Peoria-based Bump Boxes is part of the Innovation Showcase at the launch event for the Peoria Innovation Alliance on May 1, 2019.  Photo by Seth Lowe

Five Pillars of Success
The mission of the Peoria Innovation Alliance is to share our region’s innovation history, promote our progress and vision for the future, sponsor events and programming which foster collaboration, and support a seed fund and accelerator to enable the next round of innovators and entrepreneurs who call Greater Peoria home. We aim to accomplish this through five key pillars of success—each leveraging relationships and partnerships with other community institutions and initiatives.

  • Events and education. Promote and amplify current events and meetups happening within a two-hour drive of the city. Create new events and educational opportunities, including a “Peoria Road Show,” to educate a regional and national audience of the great things happening in Greater Peoria.
  • Peoria Fund. In collaboration with other community organizations, establish a professionally managed multi-million dollar seed fund focused on “new money” as a source of capital for burgeoning entrepreneurs and their companies, but also as a funding catalyst for a formalized accelerator program.
  • Accelerator. Recruit and select two cohorts of 10 companies per year that are awarded capital through the Peoria Fund. In exchange, these startups enter into an intensive three- to four-month program of mentorship, validation and prototyping before launching, with the ultimate goal of raising additional capital and eventually exiting—sharing their financial successes with the Peoria Fund along the way.
  • Smart City Peoria. Establish an innovation district in Peoria’s Central Business District leveraging the Dallas Innov8te model. Partner with the City of Peoria on their open data initiative as well as NexMobi’s autonomous mobility strategy—all to demonstrate the power and possibilities of how a connected community can improve quality of life.
  • National storytelling. Leverage Bradley University’s Communication Department and other resources to package, prioritize and positively tell our stories of innovation, entrepreneurship and startups. From our legendary history of innovation to the cutting-edge efforts occurring today, we will take our message across the nation.

Whether you are an entrepreneur, investor, business owner or simply a citizen who wants to help drive Greater Peoria to greater heights, the choice to change the narrative is up to you. Peoria has had its pity party. It’s time to get to work. PM

Jake Hamann is founder and executive director of Peoria Innovation Alliance. This article features contributions from Dave Lucas of Lucas Partnering and Steve Tarter.

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