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Q&A: Leamon Set To Take Reins Of Distillery Labs

Paul Leamon has been named the first executive director for Distillery Labs.

Paul Leamon feels he’s up to the challenge of getting Distillery Labs, the technology and innovation center coming to downtown Peoria next year, off the ground.

Leamon brings 30 years of experience in entrepreneurship, fundraising and corporate development into his position as executive director, a role he will begin on Jan. 4. He will oversee hiring of the organization’s staff, attracting members and partners, and leading the process to launch the 50,000-square-foot facility in the ICC Thomas Building by the end of 2021.  

Formerly known as the Peoria Innovation Hub, Distillery Labs is funded by a $10 million grant as part of the Illinois Innovation Network. It is a partnership among OSF HealthCare, the Greater Peoria EDC, Illinois Central College, and the University of Illinois' Discovery Partners Institute.

In a conversation with Joe Deacon, Leamon discusses his qualifications and the challenges of launching an innovation hub amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joe Deacon: What attracted you to the executive director position with Distillery Labs?

Paul Leamon: Yeah, there's so many different components to it that really attracted me. I'm kind of at a career path in my life cycle now where I'm interested in giving back to entrepreneurs. I've received lots of mentorship and assistance and help from others as I've developed numerous different companies over my career, and I'm at a point now where seeing kind of what was getting put together here with Distillery Labs was the perfect vehicle to really give back to the community, give back to folks that are looking to build and develop their own companies. Any help that I can provide in creating an organization and hopefully a community and ecosystem around that was something that really was super exciting for me.

Then secondly, I think Peoria is going to be a fantastic place to plant something like this. I grew up in and around cities that are about the same size as Peoria. I’ve lived in very large cities like Chicago for a long time, but (I’m) looking to get back to maybe a little bit of some of my childhood roots in a size (of a) city just like Peoria. So there are a lot of different components I think that excited me about Distillery Labs and the opportunity there.

Tell us a little bit about your background. What other positions have you held, and how have they prepared you for this new role?

Leamon: I started out of undergraduate working in consulting, and at the time – I'd studied public affairs, public policy, urban administration in undergraduate at Indiana University – and thought I really wanted to go down that path in public service. I ended up moving out to (Washington) D.C. and working with a consulting firm, where we did a lot of different projects around environmental redevelopment. I lived out there for five years and ended up taking a turn after getting an MBA into investment banking.

But throughout all those years kind of in the big corporate world, I knew at some point there was going to be a time where I came across the right idea and was ready to launch my own company. But I never really found kind of the right opportunity to do that, so after about 4-5 years of doing investment banking after MBA, my wife and I moved back to the Midwest, actually landed in Indianapolis, and it was a perfect time to launch (my) first company, which was in the space of long-term care around assisted and independent living facilities.

I ended up getting really excited about a space in medication management for that same type of population base, so that was really the first business that finally got up and running. We went through several phases of capital raising, from the early phases of friends and family into some “angel” networks and then venture capital funding through a Series A and Series B, and eventually even private equity.

So that was really a great kind of launch into the entrepreneurial space, and after I exited there in 2012-2013 timeframe, I got my hands into several other different businesses and I launched a few things having moved back to Chicago with my wife, in 2012. Then got connected with other founders who were looking for either co-founders or capital or mentorship board positions.

So (there have been) another six or seven different enterprises, startup companies that I was involved with over the past eight years. Looking through the lifecycle of a business from concept – where it's just something in your mind on a piece of paper – all the way through employing hundreds of people, getting capital put behind it, and creating a thriving company, is something that I've spent the last 15 years doing.

I think part of that, in that process of helping others go through that process: I've done some work with students out of Northwestern; I’ve done some work here in Chicago through companies that are trying to grow out of 1871, which is a similar space here in Chicago to what Distillery Labs will be in Peoria.

So (I’ve) really had my hands on a lot of those different things and really applying those skills to get this off the ground. Again, it's a concept on paper now; the physical space is there but not ready to be occupied. So it's really getting something from zero to one, off the ground in a theater that really excites me. It's a passion project.

Not only is it a passion project, Distillery Labs is also an ambitious organization. What are your plans for guiding its direction and your goals for what you want it to accomplish?

Leamon: You know, it's still early on and so I feel like I'm really getting up the learning curve. So hitting the ground in early January, really I want to spend a lot of time speaking with folks in around the community. I know there's been a lot of activity over a number of different years and different paths. I want to understand: what are the challenges that Peoria and the region in general has historically seen? What are entrepreneurs facing in terms of challenges in that region?

Understand where we can fit in, and I know there's been a lot of work done already to date. Before I even hit the ground, there's been four working groups with a lot of different individuals that have poured a lot of time and effort into thinking through programming and the physical space and community outreach and those aspects.

So I'm really spending time right now getting my hands around all the work that's been done, and again trying to understand what is it that we can leverage in the community, and get some of those challenges taken care of or address those challenges, to hopefully get a lot of interesting, thriving businesses from people that have maybe dabbled with the idea that they'd like to be an entrepreneur at some point. And Distillery Labs is there to help guide through that process.

Getting an organization like this started as COVID-19 still lingers must be an especially difficult challenge. How are you approaching the pandemic’s impact?

Leamon: No, no doubt. I mean, the pandemic is certainly impacting all sorts of organizations just like this, whether it be here in Chicago or Peoria or elsewhere. Turning to the virtual world is not certainly something that's going to take care of every type of challenge that startups have. Developing companies is a very hands-on process, and having chances to bump into other people through an open environment where you're together as you face challenges, a lot of that doesn't quite happen in the virtual space.

So there's a lot we can do in terms of some of the programming. I know the team has already been doing “Whiskey Talks,” which is great, introductions to other entrepreneurs and what they're doing in the community. That's been a fantastic thing that hopefully will continue. But at some point, yes, we absolutely want to get back together in a physical manner, and hopefully 2021 is the year we can do that.

What is it about the Peoria market that offers the potential for success?

Leamon: Looking in from the outside and taking a look at the community in terms of Distillery Labs, it's a community (that) has evolved over time; it's lived multiple different lives, whether it's kind of the pre-prohibition days, to kind of pivoting into manufacturing, and now seeing a lot more – even in the past 10, 15, 20 years – more on the health care front. It feels like a super resilient community that may have some pockets of density around big corporations. But it feels like a community that knows how to reinvent itself and is comfortable doing that.

I love the fact that there are a handful of large corporations that are super innovative, from Caterpillar to OSF (HealthCare) and others. Innovation in corporations these days is not necessarily done inside their own four walls, and I think there's a lot of exciting ways to bridge those two things: People in the community having ideas, how can those ideas help challenges that some of those corporations are facing. I think Peoria really has a unique connection between those that's really interesting over the coming years to evolve.

You can also listen to the full interview:

Listen to the complete conversation

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.