How This Rust Belt City Built a Tech Ecosystem

October 17, 2017

12:20 pm

In Illinois, the Greater Peoria region has historically been a center for engineering and manufacturing excellence. It’s also home of the Caterpillar company that’s not only known for supplying farming equipment, but also helped with several projects including: widening the Panama Canal and providing equipment needed for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

It’s also a a place that is developing a tech ecosystem and at the center of it is Randon Gettys, director of Startup Greater Peoria. In this #StartupsEverywhere series, we talked about traditional industries, the blossoming tech ecosystems, and the latest startups.

Randon Gettys, Director of Startup Greater Peoria

Randon Gettys, Director of Startup Greater Peoria

What’s your role in the Peoria area startup ecosystem?

The roles I most often play in our regional startup ecosystem are that of knowledge maven and connector of people to people. I have regular interaction with other ecosystem support organizations to understand their offerings and I try to keep a mental three-dimensional profile of the people I meet. This positions me to make quality connections for entrepreneurs.

I got involved in ecosystem building by accident. I was looking for people who were excited about tech startups when I met some folks who were planning a Startup Weekend and bringing 1 Million Cups to Peoria. I kept going to all the meetups and volunteering for events, so when a local grant came through, they gave me a job! I now have the privilege of managing several startup programs and partnerships for the Greater Peoria EDC.

Tell us more about Startup Greater Peoria.

Startup Greater Peoria (Startup GP) is a program of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. Our purpose is to connect entrepreneurs and scalable startup businesses with resources that help them on their path to growth.

Examples of programs we administer are: a pre-accelerator with $10,000 pitch competition, a small coworking space, a travel grant for startups to visit or host potential investors, customers, partners, or suppliers, mixers and meetups, and a five-year partnership agreement with Junior Achievement to launch a high school entrepreneurship program in each of the five counties — Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Mason, and Logan — that we serve.

What are some of the traditional industries in Peoria? 

Peoria has traditionally been a manufacturing town and has even been called the “earthmoving capital of the world.” This is because Caterpillar, Inc.’s global headquarters was located here for over 90 years. We were dealt a blow this past January when the company announced it will move its primary office from downtown Peoria to the Chicago suburbs. However, Caterpillar will continue to employ 12,000 in Greater Peoria.

Greater Peoria region has historically been a center for engineering and manufacturing excellence, logistics and supply chain expertise, and intermodal transport. There are a few stories of successful Caterpillar spinoffs, and a few infamous failures.

In the past 20 years, our economy has diversified into healthcare, which, as an industry, employs more people than our manufacturers. Going forward, we are excited about the potential that our startup companies have, not just in offsetting future corporate divestiture in Peoria, but in the growth of our regional economy.

What is the biggest challenge you face in the Peoria?

Like any Rust Belt community, challenges we face in Peoria today include: the loss of quality manufacturing jobs, pockets of extreme poverty and chronic unemployment, the so-called “brain drain” of our talented workforce who move to larger metros, as well as the anxiety of economic uncertainty and consequent risk-aversion. In order to maximize the potential here, we as a region must overcome our deepest “flyover country” insecurities and recognize that when we put ourselves to task, we can move mountains.

Peoria has the potential to be a Midwestern research and development (R&D) hub, specifically in the agtech and autonomous vehicle technologies space. It is my opinion that we must put as much emphasis on commercializing emerging technologies as attracting research grant dollars.

What are some of the inputs that have helped your ecosystem grow?

The heroes of our startup ecosystem are our founders. They have assumed great risk and responsibility to solve difficult problems, seize opportunities, provide new jobs, eliminate inefficiencies, and all the wonderful things entrepreneurs do.

Christine Deehring left her job in corporate accounting to develop an online marketplace for safe pregnancy products. Now, her company, Bump Boxes, is growing fast, acquiring another company, and launching two new brands. Luke Haverhals, has spent a career in scientific research discovering how to make natural fibers behave like petroleum based materials. His company, Natural Fiber Welding, is commercializing a revolutionary sustainable manufacturing process.

It is my opinion that we have an impressive suite of entrepreneurship assets in Greater Peoria. There are two angel firms, 12 colleges and universities in a 30-mile radius, three world-class research facilities, a workforce brimming with engineering talent, a low cost of living, a handful of nonprofit startup initiatives, manufacturing and logistics expertise, and a multimodal transportation infrastructure. We know how to make and ship stuff.

What are the most unique features of the Peoria community?

OSF Innovation is a new department of the OSF HealthCare system that is dedicated to innovations in health care. With a boost from a wealthy benefactor, OSF has invested in a new research facility located in the heart of Peoria’s downtown medical district that houses cutting edge simulation education programs, a robust performance improvement group, engineering partnerships with a world class research university, a $70 million plus venture capital arm, and more. The teams within OSF Innovation are working on everything from the latest medical devices to revolutionary web-based home health care delivery to virtual reality real time surgical consultation between physicians and practitioners a world apart.

Peoria is also home to the USDA’s largest agricultural utilization research center. We call it the “Ag Lab.” The absorbent stuff in disposable diapers, packing peanuts, and penicillin are all innovations that came from the Ag Lab in the past. We’re working on new ways to encourage the commercialization of its newer technologies.

Are there some startups to watch coming out of the Peoria area?
  • Natural Fiber Welding (2016) – a disruptive chemistry and technology company poised to offer sustainable alternatives to nonrenewable plastics and other resource intensive materials by producing high value materials from low cost, highly functional, naturally occurring fibers.
  • TADA (2016) – a data analytics SaaS platform that enables executive and management teams to navigate a digital duplicate of their entire business in 360 degrees for fast, informed decision-making.
  • AutonomouStuff (2010) – builders of autonomous cars, retailers of autonomous technology components, developers of autonomous-driving software, consultants to Silicon Valley autonomous vehicle startups, creators of the future!
  • Bump Boxes (2014) – a monthly subscription box for expecting moms with safe and fun pregnancy and baby products (recently featured in Kauffman Foundation video series).

Read more about ecosystems around the country here at Tech.Co

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Emma Peck is a policy analyst at Engine, a nonprofit that supports the growth of technology entrepreneurship through economic research, policy analysis and advocacy on local and national issues.

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