A Thriving Economy

From cutting-edge startups to Fortune 100 firms, a range of innovators and entrepreneurs are making waves in Greater Peoria.

Bump Boxes office, headquartered in Peoria
Bump Boxes is the largest, fastest growing subscription box for mom and baby. The Peoria-based startup has doubled its revenue each of the last three years. Photo by Jeffery Noble

With a highly-skilled workforce, low overhead costs, global connections and a network of supportive partners, everything you need to start, run and grow a business can be found right here in central Illinois. The local economy continues to diversify, and pioneering opportunities are being created in brand-new industries.

Healthcare is the region’s largest and fastest-growing employment sector, with UnityPoint Health and OSF HealthCare leading the way. With its headquarters in downtown Peoria, OSF was named one of the nation’s best employers by Forbes magazine for the second straight year in 2019, while a surge of investment is attracting new jobs and boosting wages across the region.

Peoria is home to the world headquarters of Maui Jim, whose high-end sunglasses are considered the world’s finest. Alongside Caterpillar and Komatsu, they lead a pack of area companies with robust international operations. In 2018, Peoria was the 39th largest exporter among all U.S. metro areas, shipping $9.7 billion in goods—including heavy machinery, fabricated metal products, transportation and electrical equipment.

From autonomous vehicles to precision farming, manufacturing and agriculture are foundational to the regional economy, which also encompasses “mini-clusters” of industries such as insurance—including headquarters for top firms like RLI, Pekin Insurance, Pearl Insurance and Illinois Mutual. As growth continues to shift from heavy industry to digital solutions, startups and existing companies alike are inventing the future. 

TOP STARTUP FIRMS
A regional focus on entrepreneurship and innovation has made central Illinois a welcoming community for startups. In 2019, Peoria again moved up the ranks of Midwest Startups’ Best Startup Cities, while a range of area companies are drawing global attention. 

As the world leader in supplying R&D platforms, products, software and engineering services for advanced robotics and autonomy systems, Morton-based AutonomouStuff is revolutionizing the future of autonomous transportation. After launching a pilot program with two automated R&D vehicles in downtown Peoria last year, the firm and its parent company, Hexagon AB, kicked off 2020 by introducing its Smart Autonomous Mobility solutions portfolio—a complete solution set enabling customers to build, test and put fully autonomous fleets of vehicles into production.

Just down the interstate, an electric vehicle startup has received several massive rounds of funding in the past year. In September 2019, Rivian announced a partnership with Amazon to design and build 100,000 electric delivery vehicles at its 2.6 million-square-foot plant in Bloomington-Normal, the company’s primary North American manufacturing facility. Following additional investments from Ford Motor Company and Cox Automotive, the firm capped off its banner year with a $1.3 billion investment from T. Rowe Price Associates. Rivian’s first vehicles are expected to hit U.S. roadways by 2021.

Natural Fiber Welding, located in north Peoria, is reformatting natural fibrous materials at the molecular level to broaden their spectrum of capabilities. Their patented process works with virtually all natural materials—without chemicals or GMOs—to provide sustainable alternatives to nonrenewable plastics. Its plant-based leathers are especially promising, as that market is set to be worth between $45 billion and $85 billion by 2025.

In addition to industry-leading solutions in sustainable goods and autonomous mobility, Peoria is also home to a titan of e-commerce. Bump Boxes is the world’s largest subscription service for mom and baby, and one of the fastest-growing companies in Illinois. With revenue doubling each of the last three years, the company has acquired several competitors, created multiple partnerships and new product lines, launched an early-stage startup fund, and gone on a hiring binge in Peoria.

Peoria Made shop
Keeping it local is even easier with the Peoria Made shop.

ENABLING REGIONAL GROWTH
Numerous collaborative efforts are working to grow Peoria’s startup community and ensure its place at the forefront of 21st-century innovation. For over a decade, the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center has been home to researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs seeking to transform new technologies into commercial enterprises, while a new innovation hub is poised to make a substantial impact.

Last November, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker joined regional leaders to celebrate the Peoria Innovation Hub, a world-class facility coming to downtown Peoria. Funded through a $10 million grant that is part of the larger Illinois Innovation Network, the hub will be dedicated to finding solutions to improve the wellness of underserved populations and advance systems related to food, farming and transportation—specifically autonomous mobility. In addition to spaces for startups, corporate partners, community organizations, universities and other stakeholders, elements such as a digital makerspace and an experimental rooftop greenhouse are being considered as plans for the hub continue to develop.

The Peoria Innovation Alliance formed last year to help foster this collaborative movement, connect entrepreneurs and innovators, and tell their stories on the national stage. The organization was pivotal in pushing for a nine-block Innovation District in the downtown, which was approved by the Peoria City Council in October, as well as the launch of Peoria Made—a retail incubator, visitors center and learning lab dedicated to empowering the local maker and artisan community.

A leading partner in the Peoria Innovation Hub, the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council provides a broad range of services to Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Mason and Logan counties, including:

  • Business Development: GPEDC assists existing businesses and helps them overcome barriers to growth. They manage a Foreign Trade Zone and organize the Greater Peoria Manufacturing Network, a coalition of manufacturers working together to market their services nationwide.
  • Innovation and Startup: GPEDC works to support an ecosystem conducive to starting new businesses. They manage The Nest coworking space, run the Co.Starters business accelerator and are working with partners to launch the Peoria Innovation Hub.
  • Business Attraction: GPEDC markets Greater Peoria to the nation and the world, and assists businesses that wish to relocate or expand here—collaborating with government and business leaders and building relationships with site selectors and foreign consulates.
  • Workforce Solutions: GPEDC works collaboratively to build a workforce system that ensures employers can find the talent they need to fill jobs. GPEDC helps produce career expos; develops internships with local employers; manages talent attraction activities; and assists the efforts of local recruiters. 
  • Rural Economic Development: GPEDC connects the region’s agricultural and rural resources to improve the economy and harness the potential of rural communities. They bring rural partners together around issues like industrial hemp, organic farming and value chain coordination, and work to develop assets to assist with agricultural innovation. 

Working closely with the GPEDC are the CEO Council and Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, which provide strategic leadership for a range of economic development and quality-of-life initiatives, as well as the Turner Center for Entrepreneurship at Bradley University. Comprised of the Illinois Small Business Development Center, Entrepreneurship Center, Illinois SBDC International Trade Center and NAFTA Opportunity Center, it offers free business counseling, low-cost training programs, and access to expertise in international trade, product commercialization and government procurement opportunities.

The Peoria chapter of SCORE (Counselors to America’s Small Business) is another great resource for local startups, offering free counseling and targeted workshops, while the Minority Business Development Center helps minority business owners, entrepreneurs, service professionals and others on the path to success.

The Greater Peoria EDC team
The Greater Peoria Economic Development Council is a public-private partnership charged with improving the regional economy. Photo by Jeffery Noble

GLOBAL R&D AND MANUFACTURING
Amidst a steadily diversifying economy, the manufacturing sector remains crucial, comprising 13.4 percent of the area workforce. An economic engine for more than 90 years, Caterpillar Inc. is the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines and diesel-electric locomotives. 

About 12,000 Caterpillar employees work around the region, including the foundry in Mapleton, where cast-iron cylinder blocks are produced for engines; the flagship tractor factory in East Peoria, where its largest bulldozers are manufactured; a demonstration and learning center in Edwards; and a logistics hub in Morton, where millions of parts are stocked and shipped around the world. 

Caterpillar invests nearly $2 billion in research and development each year, leveraging its global engineering and technical community. The Peoria area is home to one of Caterpillar’s global hubs for R&D and product development, where teams develop and test advanced technologies, tools and processes, from innovative software and digital solutions to new product development.

Caterpillar employs nearly 3,000 product development engineers in Greater Peoria, including more than 200 with PhDs, 1,100 with master’s degrees and nearly 20 of its chief engineers. The Caterpillar Technical Center has been the enterprise hub for R&D for decades, playing a vital role in increasing the performance and capabilities of Cat machine systems, power systems, components and manufacturing processes.

Founded in 1889, Keystone Steel & Wire operates one of the world’s largest wire and rod mills in Bartonville, producing nearly 800,000 tons of steel each year. Keystone was acquired by multinational conglomerate GFG Alliance in 2018—with ambitious plans to double capacity and become the nation’s largest steel producer. 

From its headquarters in Peoria, the Mining Division of Komatsu America Corp. ships large off-highway mining trucks around the world. In total, nearly 400 manufacturing firms operate across Greater Peoria, producing everything from precision tools and railroad component parts to customized wood trim and food products.

Welding at Jtec Industries
Founded in 2004, Jtec Industries has expanded internationally and become a leader in the material handling industry with three manufacturing facilities, 120 team members and sales exceeding $21 million. Photo by Jeffery Noble

INNOVATIONS IN AGRICULTURE
With some of the world’s richest farmland right here in central Illinois, food and agriculture have long been economic drivers, accounting for $1.1 billion in annual sales. Corn and soybeans remain the primary commodities, while specialty and organic crops are huge—with a growing network of small farmers creating new models of sustainability.

Not only is Greater Peoria the nation’s top region for pumpkin and popcorn production, it is poised to become a hub for industrial hemp as this emerging industry takes root. Value-added products encompass wine, seasonings and spirits as well, while marijuana legalization is quickly creating another new industry. Meanwhile, local ag-tech firms like 360 Yield Center and Precision Planting are on the frontlines of increasing efficiencies and yields through high-tech production equipment and digital solutions.

The USDA Ag Lab in Peoria, officially known as the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR), is among the largest agricultural research centers in the United States, employing 250 scientists and support staff in research to improve agricultural production, food safety and public health, economic development, and environmental quality.

NCAUR research encompasses crop bio-protection, plant polymer research, functional foods, renewable product technologies, applied microbiology, bioenergy, bio-oils and more—with partners from industry, academia and government helping to bring cutting-edge technologies to market. From addressing antibiotic resistance to detecting and eliminating toxins in the food supply, initiatives of worldwide significance are being developed at the Peoria Ag Lab.

BUILDING YOUNG LEADERS
As young professionals gain experience and expertise, they also seek to make a difference in their community. The Young Professionals Organization of Greater Peoria offers monthly networking, social and professional development opportunities, while GENeration United provides an avenue to impact the nonprofit community through the Heart of Illinois United Way.

The Community Foundation of Central Illinois’ Emerging Philanthropists Fund and Echelon Peoria, a chapter of The Salvation Army’s National Young Adult Auxiliary, are two other initiatives that help young professionals make their mark in the community.

Each year, Peoria Magazines honors Greater Peoria’s best and brightest with its 40 Leaders Under Forty award, a rite of passage for the area’s rising stars, while community leadership schools in Peoria, Morton, East Peoria and Pekin ensure that civic leadership continues to flourish throughout the region. PP

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