The online version of this story was updated September 17, 2021.
Momentum is building again for Illinois State’s Innovation Hub. Organizers of this ambitious project hope to bring the University’s various entrepreneurial programs into focus and help drive economic growth in Bloomington-Normal through the support of local startup businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs.Appears In
The Innovation Hub had received a big boost in 2019 when it joined the 15-member Illinois Innovation Network to which Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker committed $500 million in state funding. The statewide network is led by the University of Illinois system and includes a hub at each of the state’s four-year, public universities. By the time of this announcement, Illinois State had also identified locations for the Innovation Hub’s startup business incubator and community makerspace.
But then the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic struck. The state placed a hold on the network’s funding, the makerspace lost its proposed space, meetings among the network hubs slowed down, and development of the building that was to house the startup incubator came to a halt. But the tide has turned once again.
Dr. Craig C. McLauchlan, associate vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Illinois State, is leading the Innovation Hub project, which began under his predecessor, Dr. John Baur. McLauchlan said in April that conversations between the network’s hubs had restarted and the state had begun releasing some of the network’s funding, though not the $3 million allocated to Illinois State’s hub.
Behind the scenes, organizers spent the pandemic creating marketing plans and solidifying concepts for the project. McLauchlan is optimistic about where the hub stands now.
“We really have the opportunity to work together to drive workforce development and better living in the Bloomington-Normal area,” McLauchlan said. “I’m super-excited because a lot of these one-off projects around the University we’re going to be able to leverage and put those together, and there are a lot of really creative opportunities in town to build new businesses.”
Redbird Scholar magazine interviewed McLauchlan and a few of his collaborators about the Innovation Hub last spring. Here are their answers to some big questions about the project.
What is the Innovation Hub exactly?
The Innovation Hub is a large-scale effort in the region to support and develop a culture of innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. Two of the initial related components are the startup business incubator and a community makerspace. The former will support local entrepreneurs by offering them a temporary headquarters, resources, access to researchers, and a network of connections, whereas the latter will serve as a space where community members can develop ideas, utilize technology, and create projects that may transform into a business one day.
“The incubator is a lot more structured around entrepreneurship, startup development, business development,” said Oluwatobi Oladejo, M.S.’21. Oladejo spent last school year helping to develop the hub’s marketing strategy as an Applied Community and Economic Development Fellow in the Stevenson Center. “The makerspace is kind of a prerequisite. This is for anybody in the community, literally. You can come in with your ideas and have a space to build on them. There would be 3D printers, webinars, workshops, things that will engage the community to become less risk-averse and more idea-driven.”
Where will the Innovation Hub be located?
Plans had called for the startup incubator to lease space within the new Trail East development in Uptown Normal. The project had been delayed due to the pandemic, and recently that project was suspended when the developer withdrew from it, forcing the Innovation Hub team to rethink the incubator location and look for one that can meet its space and timing needs.
Hub organizers had planned to house the makerspace in a former fire station near Weibring Golf Club. However, the University has turned that building into an off-campus coronavirus testing site. Innovation Hub organizers have been searching for a new location that ideally would have 10,000 to 15,000 square feet of space and be located near campus and easily accessible to users from outside the University.
“For both our incubator and makerspace, we’re working on programming and services to offer some virtual programming even in the absence of a physical space,” McLauchlan said.
What will the startup incubator include?
The incubator will provide a temporary home for 10 to 12 local tenants in various states of building their own businesses. They will have access to breakout rooms and a common area. There will also be spaces where a support network of resources such as attorneys, economic development staff, and accountants can hold hours.
“The arc of needs of people who want to start businesses are not identical,” McLauchlan said. “Some people really just need somewhere the mail goes or where someone will answer the phone and direct the caller the right way. Others are farther along in the process and may need legal, accounting, or other professional services. The Small Business Development Center of McLean County offers a lot of services as well, and so we will be partnering with them and they will have virtual or real office hours. Others may just need a graphic design for a logo or a website that’s functional and looks right. So we’d like to be able to help with those things, and we are trying to figure out the structure of how does it work when you don’t want to buy all those services.”
The incubator will sign two-year leases with the tenants. The first batch will be chosen before the incubator opens. The entrepreneurs will come from on and off campus. Some may be Illinois State researchers who have developed an idea that can be turned into a product; others may be students who want to further develop a business idea that came out of their work with the University’s George R. and Martha Means Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Many tenants, however, are expected to hold no previous affiliation with the University.
“We’re building this for the region. It’s ISU led, but it is intentionally for the community,” McLauchlan said. “ISU brings a lot to the table in terms of our faculty, staff, and students, and the innovative ideas we have, the expertise we have, and the skills we have. But if we try to do it alone, without being a part of the community, it’s just not going to be as strong.”
Hub organizers are also talking with local governments to figure out what support can be provided to startups once they leave the incubator, said Illinois State Director of Strategic Partnerships Rex Schaeffer.
“We are working with the Town of Normal, City of Bloomington, and McLean County to focus on an innovation district in addition to the two facilities,” Schaeffer said. “Where can we get them so that the incubator graduates locate locally and they stay in McLean County?”
What will the makerspace offer?
While the incubator will house a small number of potential entrepreneurs with virtual services to a larger group, the makerspace will be accessible to the entire community. What exactly it will look like, what hours it will hold, and as previously mentioned, where it will be located, are still to be decided. The basic concept is to provide a place where the community can do hands-on exploration, learn about big concepts like design-thinking, develop ideas in collaboration with other innovative thinkers, and make things that could potentially turn into a business.
“We envision things like the makerspace having open maker hours, where anyone can walk in and get help with their project, in addition to the educational programming being available to anyone in the community,” said Dr. Rebekka Darner, the director of Illinois State’s Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology (CeMaST).
CeMaST, whose mission is to provide STEM education programming for students in K-12, is helping to devise the makerspace’s programming and operations. The makerspace will offer webinars, camps, and workshops to students from kindergarten through college, K-12 teachers, college and university faculty, entrepreneurs, and community members.
Organizers are taking an inventory of relevant equipment around campus to see what may be available and are seeking grants for 3D printers, lathes, and other automated machining tools. Staffing is an open question, but Darner envisioned a scenario in which specially trained undergraduate and graduate students would be on hand to work with community members on their projects and teach them how to use the technology.
Eric Boerngen, outreach coordinator for Research and Graduate Studies, sees the makerspace as a great mentoring and learning opportunity for users.
“They may not know how to use some of the equipment. A lot of people don’t know how to write G-code for a 3D printer or for a CNC (computerized numerically controlled) lathe, but they could go and talk to some of the other people working there, or participate in some programming that will be offered to learn G-code, what it takes to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, or how to improve other skills,” he said. “People may come in with an idea, but that doesn’t mean they have the other tangible pieces that they’re going to need to be successful. So, one thing that I’m excited about is that this is also an opportunity for them to get some of that other knowledge and those other skills and abilities that will help them to succeed.”
The makerspace may eventually feed clients into the startup incubator, Schaeffer said.
“In effect you would almost have a flow-through, if you will, through the whole innovation process. Individuals can leverage and utilize the makerspace to help develop a product. And then if they want to take it to the next level and try to take it to market, then they can become a tenant of the incubator and work through that process.”
How has the Innovation Hub engaged with the local community?
McLauchlan and his collaborators have been building bridges with business, community, and governmental leaders in Bloomington-Normal to avoid problems that sabotaged previous efforts to establish similar economic development projects.
“We’ve got really great insight in regards to understanding what has been done before, and essentially how to not do that again,” Oladejo said. “There were silos and sections within the community that have perceptions of what the other side does, and it has kept us from having the cohesive and connected community, at least the potential of one that’s even more connected.”
Hub organizers have also engaged the community through surveys and other market research. This feedback has informed the hub’s plans and brand identity.
“Everything from focus groups to interviews and surveys we have done is meant to engage the community and understand different stakeholders’ perspectives so that everything that we’re doing is inclusive and it’s informed by the people who will be eventually using the space,” Oladejo said.