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Q&A: Peoria Innovation Alliance’s Jake Hamann

210610 Jake Hamann.jpg
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Jake Hamann, Peoria Innovation Alliance

In preparation for the grand opening of a physical office space downtown, the Peoria Innovation Alliance has updated its strategic plan and redesigned its website.

Executive director Jake Hamann recently spoke with WCBU Reporter Joe Deacon about how the nonprofit strives to help promote and assist business development and where the organization is headed in the future.

Joe Deacon: What is the Peoria Innovation Alliance and what does it hope to accomplish?

Jake Hamann: Our goal is really to serve and help the entrepreneurial innovator community here in the greater Peoria area. So we do that through a variety of different means, but ultimately what we're trying to do is be able to help entrepreneurs kind of take the next step in their journey, and connect them to the right resources and things that they might need here within the area.

The Peoria Innovation Alliance recently released a strategic plan. What are the major details or keys to this strategic plan?

Hamann: So, it outlines several different things that are important to us. We're now in our third year of existence, so we wanted to make sure that the community kind of knew who we were, what our goals are, how we kind of interact with the other (innovation organizations). So the strategic plan includes our values, kind of our “why,” our “how,” our “what.”

Some of our strategic goals as an organization, some of the programs and initiatives that we have underway and that are working on right now, as well as some of the metrics and indicators: so, how are we going to measure success over the long term of what we're doing? So they're all outlined within that, most of those are also repeated within our website, somewhere within our website. But those are some of the details that we've included in, just so that the community is better, where what we do.

So what are some of those details? What are some of those goals that you set in the strategic plan?

Hamann: In terms of the goals: Education is one of our big things, so providing support, relief, increased access to help fill these kinds of what we call gaps in the ecosystem. As an entrepreneur is going through their journey, they need more “in the work” than “of the work,” so helping them get educated on financing, branding, marketing, legal, those types of things – so, providing more of those workforce types of skills, the soft skills type of side of things.

Storytelling is one of our big goals, always has been: How can we as an organization serve as a megaphone to entrepreneurs and innovators here in Peoria that are doing awesome stuff? We've got a lot of them that are making some waves in their industries, specifically like the Natural Fiber Weldings and the Bump Boxes of the world. But they're – rightfully so – busy working on their business and don't have a lot of time to necessarily go promote themselves, let alone promote Peoria and that type of thing. So we're trying to be able to provide that megaphone.

Attraction: So, attracting entrepreneurs, and innovators to the Peoria area, because the all that we have to offer. Another one that we're working on right now is capital. That's always a gap and all it's something that exists, it's hard to get to: How do these early stage companies and individuals find funding, right, when they're not necessarily bank-ready, if you will, for getting a loan? What are some of those other capital mechanisms that we can help provide?

Collaboration: Being able to collaborate across the different organizations in town. Distillery Labs, Peoria Next Innovation Center, SCORE, the EDC (Greater Peoria Economic Development Council) all have programs and initiatives that support entrepreneurs; we're trying to provide that glue and be that collaborator across all of them.

So the way that kind of trickles down for us – and there's other goals, strategic goals – but we have a few different initiatives that we're working on. One is called “Return to Better;” that's something that kind of spurred out of the pandemic, around what is what are those educational courses. We looked at those in the midst of the pandemic of while some businesses are trying to get back to normal, how can we use this as an opportunity to return to better and make new business creation and entrepreneurship a priority?

We worked with the City Council last year to establish a nine-block area in downtown Peoria is the Innovation District. But what does that really mean? We're working on, now that we're emerging from the pandemic, what does that look like in terms of helping with some incentives, potentially (using) vacant buildings and bringing some activity back into that nine block area. What's great is that Distillery Labs is within that nine blocks, as well as OSF's new headquarters and their remote health facilities. So there's a lot of activity that's starting to take place. So we're figuring out what does that look like.

And then the other two are Peoria Made, that was a short-lived retail incubator that we had on Main Street that had to shut because of the pandemic (and we’re) looking at how can we relaunch that, and then we're actually getting ready to open a new office for our organization in the lower level of the First Mid Bank building at Liberty and Adams, and calling that the Center for Civic Innovation, where we can work on tackling some of our civic issues. We actually did a workshop late last year about this as a result of the Big Table; the Big Table initiative outlined all these initiatives and areas that we need to focus on fixing or bringing some solutions to, and what we're trying to do is actually bring those solutions to bear: How can we actually put into place and tangible projects, initiatives and rather than just planning, let's actually go do something.

You mentioned that one of the goals then is to highlight and market what Peoria has to offer. What does Peoria have to offer for innovative companies?

Hamann: We've got, I think, a lot more than people give us credit for. It's interesting, in the role that I'm in I have a lot of opportunity to work at a national level with some organizations – like the Kauffman Foundation, there's another organization called Right to Start – and they actually point at Peoria as an example for other communities, because of a lot of the things that we do have to offer when it comes to entrepreneurship. We have a lot of support organizations, a lot of individuals that are focused on supporting entrepreneurs. The SBDC (Small Business Development Center) is another example I didn't mention earlier up at Bradley (University); you’ve got the Turner Center (for Entrepreneurship) at Bradley. So we have a lot of those resources here, I think that's one thing that we have to offer.

Then from an industry perspective, there are some industries that we're starting to see emerge out of greater Peoria that can become game changers for us. Specifically with Natural Fiber Welding and the textiles industry, and everything that surrounds that: the supply chain that goes along with that is going to have to be created. But we have a rich history in supply chain and manufacturing logistics, of course. Then also looking at what Bump Boxes has been able to accomplish from an e-commerce perspective. They choose to stay here because of some of the advantages they have of being centrally located in the United States, our access to transportation, once again, logistics, supply chain, those types of things. So it kind of goes back to some economic development work that was done back in 2013: What are those assets that we have, and how do we capitalize on that? I think the combination of the industry side, as well as the support side from entrepreneurial perspective, makes us a really attractive place for people looking to start a new business.

Along with the strategic plan, Peoria Innovation Alliance announced a new tool called the “Smart Start Resource Navigator.” What is that, and how does that work?

Hamann: So the resource navigator, we're kind of promoting as a front door or an entry point for entrepreneurs in the community. So everybody's at a different point … if you're starting a business. you're at a different point in your journey and no one journey is the same as the next. So what we've put that tool out there for is to collect information to be able to understand who's doing what and working in what space. But the key thing is to be able to help point people to the right resources.

I mentioned a lot of those resources, but many of those come at different points in the journey. So by filling out this form, the very last or next-to-last question is: “Where do you need help? What area do you need help in?” So, is it HR; do you need help with hiring people? Do you need help with marketing and branding? Do you need help with legal? Real estate, finding a location? All kinds of different things; there's all kinds of different areas in where people need help, and many times because there are a lot of resources, people don't know where to go.

So that's really the goal of that tool, is to have somebody put in their information, identify where they need help, and then our role is then to help connect them with the right resources. We may not have all the answers – and many times we don't – but we know somebody that does, and we can help connect them with those people.

So we've had about a dozen individuals that have gone through that, filled that form out. We actually even had two guys that visited that came from Naperville because they found it and were able to get some of the resources that they couldn't find there in what we offered. So they came down and we had a great session with them. So that's really the goal, is that entry point but then also the ability to help kind of back to our goal of helping people take that next step as easily as seamlessly as possible.

So how can people get in touch or find more information out about the Peoria Innovation Alliance? I know you redesigned the website a little bit.

Hamann: So we did, we just redesigned our website, launched a new website. There's a page called “The Entrepreneurial Ecosystem” on our site that essentially lists out a lot of the resources I just mentioned, and categorizes them into different areas. (The site) also has a meetup calendar – that's one of the things that we do as well, especially now that it's starting to emerge from the pandemic – of networking events, and educational events. So that can all be found on our website.

We also have a pretty strong social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, where we share stories, share a lot of our information, and actually are sharing a lot of the components that are out of our strategic plan here recently.

You touched on it a little bit earlier, but you’re getting ready for this physical space that you're going to have a grand opening for. Can you tell a little bit more about that?

Hamann: Yeah, absolutely. So we're going to be located in the lower level, actually the Liberty Street level, of 230 SW Adams. It's the First Mid Bank building in downtown, in the Innovation District. It's a really unique opportunity. We're not necessarily a co working space; The Nest is a co working space. Ours is being very much focused on civic innovations. So we will have (where) people can come in and a “rent-a-desk” type of thing, but very specific focus. Eventually we'd like to build a cohort of 8 or 10 individuals that are working on civic minded ideas.

We're slated to open, have a grand opening hopefully sometime the week of June 22. We’re hoping to be able to leverage – I'm looking at it right now – Liberty Street to do some events here over the summer, and really activate this nine-block area down here in the Innovation District as we move forward.

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