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gBETA Distillery Labs drives innovation and startups

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Nate Domenighini, gBETA Distillery Labs Director, introducing gBETA at the gBETA Distillery Labs Fall 2021 Cohort Pitch Night (Jan. 6, 2022)

Now under construction in downtown Peoria, Distillery Labs is on a mission to drive innovation and business startups. When the building opens next year, it will become the central hub for local entrepreneurs to launch and grow new businesses. But even without a physical building, their team has wasted no time getting its programs off the ground.

The gBETA program came to Peoria through Gener8tor, a startup accelerator based in Madison, Wisconsin, which helps entrepreneurs tap into a network of investors and partners across the country. As director of gBETA Distillery Labs, Nate Domenighini connects local startups with a support system of business experts, mentors, and other valuable opportunities.

“gBETA is a free, seven-week accelerator,” Domenighini explains. “It’s somewhat of a truncated version of Gener8tor’s flagship accelerator. It’s really designed to—at a very early stage for the companies that we're working with—put them in position, show them the mechanics, and introduce them to the expectations of the investment world.”

Domenighini likens the program to Shark Tank, the popular TV series that gives entrepreneurs the chance to pitch their ideas in front of an audience of potential investors. “It’s nowhere near that that level of intensity,” he adds. “It’s very much a supportive interaction between investors and entrepreneurs.”

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Front, from left: Jess Mabis, gener8tor Managing Director; Nate Domenighini, gBETA Distillery Labs Director; Joey Ignoffo, founder of Twilis Studios Back, from left: Pierre Paul, founder of We Hear You; John Ingles, co-founder of Wild Routed; De Ingles, founder of Wild Routed; Aaron Gigous of OSF Healthcare Innovation; Rachel Repetti, Lead Event Planner at gener8tor; Chance Emanuels, founder of SimplyCount; Mike Smith of Savage Building Systems; Steve Beach, founder of Savage Building Systems.

OSF HealthCare, among other major sponsors of Distillery Labs, led the charge to bring gBETA to Peoria. The program runs twice a year, each with five participating startups in various stages of development. “It can be an idea that’s in the napkin stage—you know, just an idea written down on a napkin—all the way up to a startup that’s maybe already seen revenue,” Domenighini notes. “It really comes down to the team, the drive, the passion, and what’s the ultimate goal.

“It’s at no cost and no equity the founders have to give up with their business. There’s no fees involved, and we cap it at five teams so we can really offer this concierge approach. Each startup I work with is at a different stage, so each one requires a custom, tailored approach to what they’re doing and what their needs are right now.”

This past fall, five Peoria-based startups participated in gBETA Distillery Labs’ first cohort. From Twilis Studios, which seeks to leverage the graduates of Bradley University’s award-winning video game design program, to We Hear You, a startup focused on accessibility technologies for individuals with disabilities, each has applied ingenuity and innovation to solve a vexing problem—or to create a new opportunity.

The program culminates on Pitch Night, where the founders present their ideas in front of a large audience of entrepreneurs, investors and the general public. While that can be very intimidating, their journey through gBETA helped to hone their ideas and their pitches.

“Each one has gained something a little bit different,” says Domenighini. “But, I think, consistently, they all learned how to appropriately message their business and how to really stand out in front of somebody who might be interested in being a partner or investor.”

The participants in the gBETA Distillery Labs program will continue to reap its benefits long after Pitch Night. “Once you graduate the program as an alumnus, you’re essentially with us for the life of your business. So your

gBETA experience doesn’t end on Pitch Night—I like to say it really kind of begins, honestly. Because from here on out, I’m constantly looking for opportunities for them, whether that’s investment opportunities, maybe a partner or a collaboration opportunity with our existing companies or other companies that have gone through gBETA.”

innovation and entrepreneurship will be critical to the economic future of the Peoria area—and the best way to grow the economy in the long term, Domenighini says, is to attract youth to the region. “And it’s not just pulling people from other areas into Peoria. It’s about keeping the young, brilliant minds, the students who are in our high schools and elementary schools, students that go through ICC, Bradley or other area institutions… how do we keep them here?

“I feel like Peoria is primed for some really incredible growth,” he continues. “I think startups will contribute to that. But I think you’ll also see the existing business community embrace that mindset as well, as to how can we be an employer of choice? How can we attract that young professional here? And you’ll see that kind of becomes contagious. That's where my energy comes from. I hope that my energy is contagious enough that other people kind of buy into that as well.”

gBETA Distillery Labs seeks to build on that enthusiasm as it works to grow the ecosystem for local entrepreneurs and startups. That work has already begun, even before the building opens its doors. “You know, when you talk about an ecosystem, it’s not a building,” Domenighini notes. “An ecosystem is a network of people and support. And a lot can get done now. I think gBETA is an example of what you can get accomplished even though we don’t have a building yet. We’re not waiting on this mission to really go out there and start finding those opportunities.”

For many entrepreneurs, the mere thought of a startup accelerator can be intimidating. Domenighini wants them to know they will have a tremendous amount of support as they take the next step to turn their idea into a business.

“I very much want to meet with people and talk with people. And I will give anybody a great perspective on how to engage with Distillery Labs or how to engage with gBETA Distillery Labs or Gener8tor. I am here, I’m a resource, and I’m free to the public. And I think if anybody has ever had the challenge of breaking through, or maybe you don’t have the connections to get that next opportunity, that’s what I'm here to do. I’ll go out there and find those people that are going to help you get to the next level.”

gBETA Distillery Labs is now accepting applications for its spring cohort. Find out more at distillerylabs.org or gbetastartups.com.

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Jonathan Wright is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.