Innovators and Entrepreneurs

Building on a history of innovation in healthcare, agriculture and manufacturing, startups and existing companies alike are inventing the future.

AutonomouStuff, led by CEO Bobby Hambrick, has gone from a small startup in his bedroom to become a world leader in supplying R&D products and services for advanced robotics and autonomy systems. Photo: Courtesy of AutonomouStuff

A highly-skilled workforce, low cost of doing business, global connectivity and a network of partners dedicated to innovation… all the ingredients to start and grow your business can be found right here. From mom-and-pop shops to Fortune 100 companies, a diverse range of companies are making waves in Greater Peoria.

While the regional economy rests on a  firm foundation of manufacturing, healthcare and agriculture, it also encompasses “mini-clusters” of industries such as insurance—with headquarters for top firms like RLI, Pekin Insurance, Pearl Insurance and Illinois Mutual. As growth continues to shift from heavy industry to technology, new industries are arising in e-commerce, sustainable goods and autonomous mobility—with local startups building next-generation solutions for a rapidly changing world.

Healthcare is the region’s largest and fastest-growing employment sector, encompassing more than 700 establishments and nearly 30,000 skilled workers—including top employers UnityPoint Health and OSF HealthCare. In 2019, OSF was named one of the best employers in the country by Forbes magazine for the second straight year, the highest-ranked Illinois healthcare system to earn the distinction.

Most Innovative City 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. Greater Peoria is among the top 50 export regions in the U.S., with $9.4 billion in export goods in 2017—including heavy machinery, fabricated metal products, transportation and electrical equipment, and animal products.

Amidst a steadily diversifying economy, the manufacturing sector remains crucial, comprising about 12 percent of the area workforce. Caterpillar Inc. has been an economic engine for more than 90 years, with sales and revenues increasing 20 percent to $54.7 billion in 2018. It 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 in a variety of facilities and functions, including the foundry in Mapleton, where cast-iron cylinder blocks are produced for engines; the company’s flagship tractor factory in East Peoria, where the 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 to dealers and customers around the world.

Caterpillar invested $1.85 billion in research and development last year, leveraging its extensive 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 that impact the entire company, 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 since the 1960s, playing a vital role in increasing the performance and capabilities of Cat machine systems, power systems, components and manufacturing processes.

In nearby Bartonville, Keystone Steel & Wire—now known as Liberty Steel—operates one of the world’s largest wire mills, producing 800,000 tons of steel each year. Founded in 1889, the company was recently acquired for $320 million by GFG Alliance, with ambitious plans to become the nation’s largest steel producer. According to chairman Sanjeev Gupta, GFG Alliance plans to double capacity at the plant over the next two years.

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 the region, producing everything from precision tools and railroad component parts to customized wood trim and food products.

Greater Peoria is home to one of Caterpillar’s global hubs for R&D and product development, where teams develop advanced technologies, tools and processes with worldwide impact.

Agriculture also remains critical to central Illinois, accounting for more than $1 billion in annual sales. Corn and soybeans are the primary commodities, benefiting from easy access to overseas exports via the Illinois River, while a growing value-added products industry encompasses wine, seasonings, popcorn and spirits.

From large commercial firms to small organic farms and specialty producers, Greater Peoria encompasses every aspect of the ag industry. Tazewell County is home to more than half of Illinois’ pumpkin production, as well as 360 Yield Center and Precision Planting—two companies at the forefront of increasing efficiencies and yields through production equipment and other high-tech solutions.

The USDA Ag Lab in Peoria, officially known as the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR), is one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutions and the largest of the USDA’s four research labs. It works to develop solutions to problems of top national priority: ensuring safe, high-quality food and other agricultural prducts; sustaining a competitive agricultural economy; protecting the environment; and providing economic opportunities for rural citizens, communities and society as a whole.

NCAUR conducts a spectrum of problem-solving research—from fundamental to commercial scale-up—partnering with entrepreneurs, industry, academia and other government agencies to bring cutting-edge technologies to market. From a novel product that addresses antibiotic resistance, to next-generation consumer/industrial products derived from crop residuals or other biomass, to technologies to detect and eliminate toxins in the food supply, many initiatives of significance are being developed at the Peoria Ag Lab.

For more than a decade, the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center has been home to researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs seeking to transform new technologies into commercial enterprises. Operated by Bradley University’s Technology Commercialization Center, the three-story, 48,000-square-foot business incubator offers coworking space for local startups as they take the first steps toward growth.

Natural Fiber Welding, founded in 2015, is a graduate of the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center, drawing national attention for its work on sustainable fiber alternatives to nonrenewable plastics. By enhancing plant-based materials with synthetic properties, NFW is poised to revolutionize multiple industries while providing social and environmental benefits to the world.

Bump Boxes
After finishing 2018 with $8 million in revenue, Bump Boxes plans to double its workforce and more than double its revenue in 2019.

Morton-based AutonomouStuff is the global leader in supplying R&D platforms, products, software and engineering services for advanced robotics and autonomy systems. In June 2019, the firm launched its Open Autonomy Pilot program in downtown Peoria, collecting data and testing software on two automated R&D vehicles. It plans to present the pilot vehicles at CES 2020 in Las Vegas—the global stage for innovation in consumer technologies.

In addition to industry-leading solutions in sustainable goods and autonomous mobility, Peoria is home to a leader in e-commerce: Bump Boxes, the world’s largest pregnancy subscription service. After finishing 2018 with $8 million in revenue, the company is on a hiring binge—with plans to double its workforce and hit $20 million in revenue in 2019.

A number of collaborative efforts are working to grow Peoria’s startup community and ensure its place at the forefront of 21st-century innovation. The Peoria Innovation Alliance connects entrepreneurs and innovators and works to tell their stories on the national stage, while NexMobi features stakeholders from business, academia, nonprofits and government—all working together to create a new economic growth driver centered around autonomous mobility technologies.

From River City Labs, a community makerspace, to OSF Innovation, an initiative working to solve some of healthcare’s biggest problems, Greater Peoria is primed to transform innovation into real companies, local jobs and a substantial economic impact. The new Peoria Innovation Hub, planned for downtown Peoria, is another cooperative effort to leverage the region’s strengths and help bring this vision to fruition. Leading the way are the multi-pronged efforts of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.

The Greater Peoria Economic Development Council (GPEDC) works to drive regional economic growth through business and talent development and attraction. Its suite of programs has been carefully crafted to help employers grow and to develop, recruit and retain a talented workforce. They include:

  • Startup GP—connecting entrepreneurs and scalable startups with critical resources for growth;
  • GP Manufacturing Network—an alliance of world-class manufacturers, service and logistics providers working to develop new opportunities for local firms;
  • Elevate GP—offering perspective on the regional economy through face-to-face interviews with regional CEOs and business leaders;
  • GP Economic Gardening—a program that supports accelerated growth for second-stage companies;
  • GP Pathways—a one-stop shop connecting students, parents and educators to career exploration resources and work-based learning opportunities;
  • Hello GP—a program offering various resources to support the talent recruitment needs of area employers;
  • GP Farm Forums—a discussion series among ag-based stakeholders to encourage innovation and foster the creation of new markets and supply chains; and
  • CO.STARTERS—a nine-week program to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with the tools needed to turn their ideas into action.
Turner Center
The Turner Center for Entrepreneurship recently launched a new co-working space for business startups inside the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center.

Through these and other programs, the GPEDC is focused on building the economic future of Greater Peoria, working closely with a range of organizations to champion business and bring prosperity to the region. Among them are the CEO Council and Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, which provide strategic leadership and bring to life a range of economic development and quality-of-life initiatives.

The Turner Center for Entrepreneurship at Bradley University is another incredible resource for startups and existing businesses alike. 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) offers free counseling and targeted workshops to small businesses, while the Minority Business Development Center on Peoria’s south side helps minority business owners, entrepreneurs, service professionals and others on the path to success.

Greater Peoria is full of young professionals seeking to make a difference in their community. The Young Professionals Organization of Greater Peoria offers plenty of 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.

Participation in these programs is often a stepping stone to larger opportunities. 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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