Brilliant minds, cutting-edge research, and state-of-the-art technology merge at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center, a business incubator located just three blocks east of campus along Main Street. The Center is the brainchild of members of Peoria NEXT, a consortium started in 2001 to diversify the regional economy by offering help to researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs interested in pursuing businesses geared toward technology and innovation.
At the heart of the Innovation Center is Bradley Technology Commercialization Center (BTCC), led by executive director Shad Sleeth. He comments, “Peoria NEXT got the ball rolling. Now, it is the marketing and recruitment arm. We are on the ground, in the trenches, working with the clients.”
Entrepreneurs pursuing a technology-based business come to BTCC. “We are specifically technology-based, innovation-based—anything that can be protected with a patent,” Sleeth says, explaining that BTCC helps with business issues such as business and strategic planning, market entry strategies, access to capital resources, sales and marketing strategies, licensing, and potential merger and acquisition partners.
Thirteen technology-based companies are in the business incubator at the Innovation Center, which is at 76 percent capacity. Sleeth says more than 30 other companies also work with BTCC. They either are not ready to move into the Innovation Center or have space of their own. Some of the entrepreneurs in the center came from Caterpillar Inc. and the Agricultural Research Lab, while others have a medical focus. (See sidebars for spotlights on two of these start-up companies.)
Sleeth comments, “From day one, people have come here with great ideas. Some come more advanced in the process with a prototype or a finished product, but what few have is business development. They only have half a company when they come here. For example, with IntelliHot [a tankless water heater
company at the Innovation Center], we have helped revamp the business plan, looked at strategic sales and marketing, and offered resources. Contacts are the most powerful
service we provide.”
He says BTCC has worked with the Heartland Capital Network to form Central Illinois’ first angel investor program. “Funding is the biggest challenge these companies face,” Sleeth explains, noting workshops are held at the Innovation Center to help business owners with grants, angel networks, and other funding options.
“Historically, access to capital in Central Illinois has been limited, but we hope that with the development of a new angel network, that changes.”
While the BTCC can’t negotiate on behalf of companies, Sleeth coaches them to work with investors.
BTCC also gives intellectual property assistance, including a technology assessment to look at a product or idea from a marketplace standpoint and determine whether it can be patented. Bradley students are available to conduct market research, while engineering and computer science students work on product and prototype development. The BTCC also offers access to the expertise of professionals at the Agricultural Research Lab, area hospitals, Bradley faculty, and others. In addition, Sleeth has a list of intellectual property attorneys for those seeking legal advice.
Since the companies generally are sales driven, the BTCC offers coaching on sales infrastructure and what sales model is best for each company.
Sleeth comments, “The Innovation Center is a positive asset for the community, and it helps Bradley students gain experience. This is great real-world, hands-on experience for Bradley students that also provides resources to start-up companies.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, so the saying goes. The quote certainly applies at Intellihot, one of the 13 companies housed at the Innovation Center.
Sridhar Deivasigamani, president of Intellihot, came home from vacation to find a flooded basement due to a leaking tank water heater. He and his friend Sivaprasad Akasam (vice president of Intellihot) had been tinkering with intelligent electronic controls on their motorcycles. They decided to apply similar principles to a water heater and quickly built a working concept in their basement. That was in 2005. Now, Intellihot is gearing up to roll out their product, approximately 100 units for testing by the second quarter of 2010. Upon completion, they will be building and selling the water heaters later this year.
“Our idea was to make the water heater work on demand and as efficiently as possible. We achieved that with our state-of-the-art design and the electronic controls,” Deivasigamani explains. “We took a systematic approach. We looked at how water is traditionally heated and how it is delivered to the faucet. Ours doesn’t heat water unless you open the faucet, and you never run out of hot water.”
The heater, about the size of a carry-on suitcase, has a natural gas fire burner that heats water instantly. It heats to precise temperatures, rather than cycling up and down like other water heater units, and is able to achieve efficiencies up to 98 percent.
Deivasigamani and Akasam had been working on the water heater in their spare time until last year when the former Caterpillar, Inc. employees opted for their employer’s buy-out opportunity. “Since we moved to the Innovation Center, we have gone from proof of concept to a production-ready unit in eight months. We can produce a limited quantity here, but we are on the lookout for a new site and collaborations with installers.”
Deivasigamani says he plans to maintain an office at the Innovation Center as a research and development site as the company transitions into a factory. He anticipates the company will employ 60 to 75 people by 2013.
Noting consumers should see a 40 percent reduction in energy costs as compared to traditional water heaters, he concludes, “We want to put Peoria on the forefront of green technology.”
In addition to the Bradley Technology Commercialization Center, Bradley’s Turner Center for Entrepreneurship has a satellite office at the Innovation Center. The Turner Center offers assistance to all types of businesses, from restaurants to the technology-based firms at the Innovation Center.
Ken Klotz, director of programming for the Turner Center, says hopeful entrepreneurs and established business people come to the Turner Center for advice. Some are seeking direction in developing a business plan, while others need help with securing bank financing.
“Our involvement is more as a business mentor,” Klotz explains. “We don’t write business plans, but we show how to put them together and critique them before they go to a lender or potential investor. We guide people through the process.”
While the Turner Center’s primary office is on campus, the satellite office serves as a site for meeting with clients and for workshops on writing business plans, starting a business in Illinois, and business management topics. The Turner Center also hosts other business-related events at the Innovation Center, including a Government Resource Showcase, bimonthly entrepreneur networking events, and the “Innovate Illinois” regional innovation competition.
Last year, the Center sponsored “Launch,” its first business plan competition at the Innovation Center. Participants in “Launch” submitted business plans describing potential new business ventures, gave presentations to a panel of judges, and received prizes including cash and professional services from local experts.
Medical students will be able to experience the feel of normal and abnormal lumps and tissue, thanks to the efforts of Peoria Robotics, housed at the Innovation Center.
Dr. John Engdahl, principal investigator for the company and Bradley’s Donald V. Fites Chair of Engineering and Technology, says, “Physicians touch people to feel for normal and abnormal lumps. It’s hard to explain what something feels like. Whether a doctor is examining the breast, thyroid, or the abdominal area, the sense of touch and feel is important. We want to develop a training system for that. Patients with abnormal conditions are not always available, especially for every student to feel.”
In order to record the simulation information, a doctor puts on a specially made glove with embedded technology that will record finger movement. Additional technology will record the pressure of examination and record the doctor’s activity during an examination. The information is recorded for later use in simulating the examination.
Medical students place their hands in a box linked to a computer to experience that touch and learn what normal and abnormal tissue feels like.
Doug Sahm, biomedical engineer for Peoria Robotics, comments, “It’s like airline pilots. They have been trained on simulators before they fly. When someone’s job is technical and risky, you don’t want to be their first.”
Peoria Robotics started in 2004 when Peoria NEXT hosted a meeting with community leaders. At that time, the group said medical simulation was an area of need. While there was no funding for research at the time, the group kept exploring ideas. Secretary of Transportation and former 18th District Congressman Ray LaHood and Senator Dick Durbin helped secure an $850,000 grant from the United States Army Medical Research and Material Command.
Bradley alumni Justin Saboury and Deepak Gaddipati, along with Doug Sahm, are employed by Peoria Robotics. In addition to Engdahl, other Bradley professors involved are Dr. Tom Stewart, Dr. Julie Reyer, Dr. Dean Kim, Dr. Arnold Patton, Dr. Kalyani Nair, and Dr. Robert Podlasek. Dr. Andy Chiou, a vascular and endovascular surgeon with the University of Illinois College of Medicine, also is a co-principal investigator and medical director for the project.
“Our goal is to create something truly useful. We are here to make something that’s practical and functional. Simulating is not easy. It requires a wide combination of technology,” Engdahl says.