SJR Column: Innovate Springfield, December 2015

The Springfield campus of the University of Illinois is firmly committed to community engagement – collaboration with local and regional partners for the mutual benefit of all. Such reciprocity enriches the student experience and enlarges the impact of the university at the same time it contributes to the public good in critically important ways. If you were to take a stroll around Springfield’s Old State Capitol today, you’d likely notice the latest, and perhaps most exciting, example to date of that engagement.

I’m talking about iSPIInnovate Springfield – a new business incubator now located in the Paragon building in the heart of downtown. With a vision to catalyze an innovative culture in our community, iSPI is supported with the shared commitment of the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, UIS, and the Q5 Strategic Leadership Council of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

According to the National Business Incubation Association, there are more than 1,200 business incubators operating successfully across the country today. Though they may vary in their strategies, incubators are geared toward nurturing and developing entrepreneurial for-profit companies and social enterprises; focusing specifically on the start-up period when young firms and organizations are most vulnerable.  The ultimate goal is to enhance the community’s entrepreneurial climate, create new employment opportunities and further diversify the local economy.  Given iSPI’s location in the heart of downtown Springfield, an added benefit is that it will help to enliven the downtown area, making it a more attractive place for creative young professionals to work and live.

Bruce Sommer, a native of Springfield who ”came home” from Boston about four years ago to teach Entrepreneurship courses in the UIS College of Business and Management, has been a driving force behind iSPI. An investor in start-up companies himself, Bruce is passionate about providing opportunities for creative young people. He started by co-founding the Sangamon CEO program – a nontraditional classroom experience for high school seniors where young entrepreneurs are inspired to become leaders in their community.  “iSPI is the next step,” he says.

“We’re providing a space where enterprising young people can create value and effectively launch their dreams at the same time they have access to needed financial capital and business-related expertise.”

Jorge Villegas, Associate Professor of Marketing at UIS, represents some of that expertise. Dr. Villegas is the former owner of a strategic marketing enterprise in Monterey, Mexico who now studies small companies. “We need to create more opportunities for UIS graduates to stay here in Illinois,” he says, “and iSPI will provide some of those opportunities.” Dr. Villegas is one of several UIS faculty who are involved with the new incubator. His students will conduct market studies for iSPI client companies, providing a needed service and gaining valuable business experience.

Dr. Magic Wade also brings expertise to iSPI  – at the same time she represents the very demographic that will benefit most from it.  A first-year professor in Political Science at UIS who studies economic inequality and social cohesion, Dr. Wade is also a new resident of downtown Springfield who appreciates the environment of the downtown area. She is a member of the Social Enterprise Committee of iSPI, helping to recruit and evaluate social entrepreneurs and prospective non-profit leaders who could benefit from the mentorship and support provided during residency in the incubator.

“Students have ambitions to work in the city and many just don’t get the opportunity.” she says, “I think iSPI can provide a bridge for our students from the campus to downtown … and to a future career.”

According to Mr. Sommer, a typical incubator residency for a client is about 18 months, with services like shared space, tech support, mentoring, team development and access to valuable human and financial capital being available. Research shows five-year survival rates for businesses and organizations that have started in incubators like iSPI ranging between 55% and 87%.

“Hy” Bunn, President and CEO of Springfield’s Bunn-O-Matic Corporation has been an advocate for iSPI from its earliest conception. “ Innovate Springfield will create a catalyzing environment for entrepreneurs , particularly younger, less experienced ones,” he says. “In addition to bringing pure economic energy to Springfield, the incubator will help connect the dots on many of our key community priorities like attracting and retaining talented young adults in our community and creating employment opportunities for the entire metro area.”

I’d say that’s community engagement we can all appreciate!

Additional information about iSPI is available via email at info@InnovateSpringfield.com

Chancellor Susan J. Koch