A Center of Innovation Activity

by Chris Setti
Greater Peoria Economic Development Council

The new Peoria Innovation Hub will continue the tradition of great innovation in our region and help us shape our future.

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion in the community that the future of Greater Peoria’s economy lies in innovation. That is absolutely correct. Our innovation assets are unparalleled for a region our size: two major hospital systems, a state-of-the-art medical simulation center, an agricultural laboratory, a college of medicine with its own cancer research center, colleges and universities committed to research and entrepreneurship, and of course, the center for research and development for one of the world’s largest manufacturers. 

Truth be told, innovation is not just our future: it’s been our past and is our present. It is part of the very fabric of our community. And that fabric is about to get stronger. 

Introducing the Peoria Innovation Hub
In early 2018, the University of Illinois System launched the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI), an interdisciplinary research institute bringing research faculty and staff to Chicago to work alongside students and businesses. While DPI will be physically located in Chicago’s South Loop, it will work to drive innovation statewide through the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN). The IIN is a system of connected university, community and industry-based “innovation hubs” that will work together to drive innovation, along with economic and workforce development, across Illinois. The backbone of the effort is connecting students and researchers at Illinois universities to the complex problems of healthcare, agriculture, environment and computing in an effort to develop solutions and eventually businesses based on those solutions.

The Peoria region is set to be a hub within this new network. Last fall, OSF HealthCare accepted U of I’s invitation to serve as the lead organization for the Peoria Innovation Hub. While the work has been ongoing, OSF did not waste time in putting the idea into practice. DPI classes have been working with OSF’s Complex Solutions Innovation team to address two key areas when it comes to serving poor, rural and elderly patient populations: resource connections and loneliness.

In addition to membership in the IIN, the state is also making capital funding available to Hubs to help advance their programs. Understanding that both the programmatic efforts and physical resources of the Hub will have lasting and important contributions for Greater Peoria, OSF engaged the wider community to imagine a first-class innovation space and start to pull together ways in which the DPI themes could be incorporated and enhanced. Working closely with the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council and Illinois Central College—along with other important stakeholders like Bradley University, Caterpillar, the Ag Lab and the City of Peoria—focus settled on the opportunity to utilize ICC’s Thomas building in downtown Peoria. Formerly the home of ICC’s health career programming, the now-vacant classroom building offers the perfect combination of location and infrastructure. 

The Peoria Innovation Hub will be a 53,000-square-foot innovation and research center that will offer students, researchers, academics and entrepreneurs a full suite of resources. This includes a makerspace and physical prototyping lab; a digital makerspace; an informatics lab; coworking facilities; small offices for new businesses; classroom and conference spaces; and a rooftop garden and commercial kitchen. Its location is perfect to connect to our local industries. The building is within blocks of OSF’s new Ministry Headquarters, Caterpillar’s main administration building and the UICOMP campus, and within a mile of Bradley, UnityPoint Health – Methodist and the Ag Lab.

Just as importantly, the Peoria Innovation Hub lies within a federally-designated Opportunity Zone, a priority area in which new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment. Opportunity Zones are designed to encourage economic activity and development, job creation and innovation, promoting long-term investments that will contribute to a sustainable economy. This designation is a critical factor in the success of the Peoria Innovation Hub. 

None of our major existing innovation drivers—not Bradley University, Caterpillar’s Tech Center, Peoria NEXT, nor any of the hospitals—are in an Opportunity Zone. The proposed location’s inclusion in such a zone will allow potential business startups to leverage this powerful incentive to attract early-stage and venture capital. In addition to the region’s own entrepreneurs, this designation will attract startup companies from other communities seeking to utilize the facility’s world-class resources and gain a distinct advantage in raising capital.

Driving Real-World Solutions
The Hub will be a resource to innovators and entrepreneurs in any field. But we also recognize that Peoria is uniquely positioned to drive change and develop businesses in three critical areas: wellness of diverse populations; food and farming systems; and autonomous mobility systems. These three areas draw on the strengths of Greater Peoria. 

We are blessed with long-standing institutional innovators like Caterpillar, Komatsu, OSF HealthCare, UnityPoint Health, Bradley, ICC and the Ag Lab. But the region has also developed new resources like AutonomouStuff, Precision Planting, Jump Simulation and 360 Yield Center. These industries and institutions will help generate the problem statements that students, researchers and entrepreneurs will tackle within the Hub. This comprehensive approach will drive success by giving entrepreneurs what they need to succeed: real-world problems with needy customers; the physical tools to create solutions; and the support they need to turn solutions into businesses.

In the coming months, you will hear a lot more about the Peoria Innovation Hub. I hope you join in my enthusiasm that the Hub will continue the tradition of great innovation in our region and help us shape our future. iBi