It’s been a big month for entrepreneurship and innovation in Greater Peoria! Just about a month ago, we hosted our Startup Showcase, which featured the first public pitches of ten great startup companies that graduated from the gBeta Distillery Labs business accelerator program. Two weeks later, we announced that the renovation of Distillery Labs would commence on August 21. And to top it all off, just this week, we announced that Doug Cruitt will serve as the next Executive Director of Distillery Labs. That’s three great chapters in an even better book about how we are working to launch the next iteration of the Greater Peoria economy. So why should you care?
Innovation is the seed of future growth, and that growth will result in economic success. High-performing economies do three things right: they support their existing businesses and help them grow; they become home to new companies that choose to take advantage of local assets; and they nurture scalable startups from the ground up. The Distillery Labs initiative is a region-wide effort to tackle that last piece – growing our own future foundational elements. Think for just a moment about the importance of Caterpillar to Greater Peoria. A century ago, they were a fairly small startup themselves, pioneering new technology and slowly changing the world. As a company, they valued innovation and created systems and resources that ensured they were always on the cutting edge of machinery technology. Their manufacturing abilities are certainly critical, but making bulldozers, tractors, and mining trucks is a byproduct of innovation. As breakthroughs developed, Caterpillar manufacturing was there to make them into products.
A more recent example is Natural Fiber Welding (NFW). Born out of some research that was brought first to Bradley University by Dr. Luke Haverhals, NFW is in the process of disrupting one of the world’s largest industries. I first met Dr. Haverhals and Steve Zika seven or eight years ago when they were tenants of Peoria NEXT with just a small handful of employees. Fast forward to the present day, and NFW employs more than 300, has recruited over 25 people to move to Peoria to work for them, and occupies nearly 200,000 square feet of space in four different buildings. Their story is a great Peoria story: not only were they able to start their company here, they were able to scale it here. Where will they be in another ten years or 20 years?
Like a big, multinational corporation, regions can foster innovation and facilitate the growth of startups. Distillery Labs is not alone in this work and joins an amazing group of organizations and individuals who are working to uncover, lift up, and champion innovators in our region. But like Peoria NEXT 15 years ago, Distillery Labs is symbolic that Greater Peoria is serious about innovation. (And make no mistake, both facilities are important to the region and work to fill out a continuum of services to entrepreneurs.) We have pillars of innovation in our region, like Caterpillar’s Tech Center, the Ag Lab, the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Bradley University, and OSF Innovation. Even better, we have amazing people with great ideas and passion for disruption and innovation, both within those pillars and outside of them. Distillery Labs, and its partners, will help unlock that talent, those ideas, and those future businesses. And when we do it right, Distillery Labs and Greater Peoria’s startup ecosystem won’t just be for our own citizens but will attract startups from around the nation and world. In startup parlance, that will get the flywheel spinning.
As I stood before the crowd at our Startup Showcase, I marveled at the ten startups who were giving their pitches. In the limited time, I had to speak, I reflected that one day not so long ago, NFW was making its first pitch. And a much longer time ago, Benjamin Holt gave his first pitch about a little tractor company. In ten years, maybe the people gathered in the Giant Screen Theater of the Peoria Riverfront Museum to hear the gBeta graduates will be able to say, “I was there when that company gave its first pitch, and look at them now.” Because while our startup efforts are helping to accelerate individual companies, they are accelerating our entire economy.