Peoria is a hub of creative minds. We consistently pump out leaders, innovators, artists and musicians who have changed the community around them in incredibly impactful and unique ways.
Then, we shoot ourselves in the foot.
We sit idly by while our competitors yank homegrown talent from our arms. Our communities and employers suffer as a result.
The Peoria area has long been a breeding ground for enormous talent, but we haven’t done the best job giving that talent a reason to stay. It’s a lost opportunity.
Peoria has a storied history in entrepreneurship. Our whiskey distilling industry, for example, was once our identity. Perhaps you’ve sipped some JK Williams or sat down in the comfort of the newly renovated Black Band Distillery on Adams Street. Peoria is again dabbling in distilling.
In essence, that’s what Distillery Labs aims to be for area startups and entrepreneurs — a distiller of ideas and innovation.
Distillery Labs is seeking the malt and the mash — the ideas born in local basements and home offices that need to be nurtured. Business founders and entrepreneurs need access to as many resources as possible.
We — Andrew Ngui, Director of Innovation and Startups at the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, Aaron Gigous of OSF Innovation, and myself, Director of gBETA Distillery Labs — are in the midst of the region’s most aggressive campaign to develop a startup ecosystem.
We hope to have a physical, high-visibility location for Distillery Labs by early 2023, one that welcomes start-up entrepreneurs and the general public alike. That open-door policy is designed to show residents it won’t be a challenge to find the right connection anymore.
At the same time, more than a building is necessary to accomplish our Distillery Labs mission. We’re taking a boots-on-the-ground approach to programming, visiting the likes of coffee shops, local workplaces and Nest Coworking in the Warehouse District. We can’t wait for the community to come to us. We have to bring Distillery Labs to the community.
“We want Distillery Labs to be known as a radically inclusive hub,” said Ngui. “Distillery Labs is your home, not someone else’s space you use. We’re encouraging all community members to own the lab as if it was their own space and to respect and treat it as such.”
Peoria is in the midst of an economic transition. We are establishing a new identity. We best do that by playing to our strengths and understanding where our best opportunities exist.
“The future is incredibly bright based on the incredible developments of the last several years,” said Gigous. “The vast, rich, and unique resources of the Greater Peoria area need to be integrated into a cohesive organism focused on the common goal of growing the startup ecosystem for all people.”
Distillery Labs can be the spark for that. With partners such as gener8tor, a nationally ranked startup accelerator based in Madison, Wis. that developed the gBETA Distillery Labs program, Peoria can be connected to resources it has never had access to before. Its model is thriving in 20 similarly sized markets throughout the country, places like Cheyenne, Wyo. and Oklahoma City.
“Peoria is small, which can be a weakness. But its size is also a strength. I think Peoria is the right-sized city and region for things to happen here, quicker than a lot of other places,” said Ngui. “The level of separation is low here. This is a great strength to celebrate.”
Peoria was a natural fit for gener8tor, which was brought here thanks to the contributions of OSF HealthCare, Hanson Professional Services, Illinois National Bank, Attollo, Peoria County, Central Illinois Angels and the DBCZAR Family Fund. This accelerator is free to entrepreneurs in the Peoria area. Its first pitch night in early January featured five local companies: Wild Routed, Savage Building Systems, Twilis Studios, Simplycount and We Hear You.
Since 2015, more than 650 startups have completed the gBETA program, resulting in more than $350 million in investments in those companies. Some have been acquired. Thousands of jobs have been created.
The foundation of a thriving startup community is a strong investor base. We intend to build out that network of potential investors. When investors start to recognize Peoria as a place to find deal flow, we’ll begin to see startups looking at Peoria as a destination to launch their ideas. It’s that kind of chain reaction we are hoping to realize with Distillery Labs.
Peoria is thirsty for this type of ecosystem. What an opportunity we have as a region to quench that thirst.
Nate Domenighini is director of
gBETA Distillery Labs.