SJR Column: Innovate Springfield, March 2019
Since its first graduates completed their degrees in 1971, the University of Illinois Springfield has been a launchpad for professional and personal success for thousands of alums – many of whom identify their UIS experience as central to their own well-being and social mobility.
But UIS and the entire University of Illinois system is also a public good – one that is increasingly indispensable across the entire state and beyond. The role of the UI system in promoting the public good is described in the new Strategic Framework, which includes a pledge to increase the system’s power as an “engine for statewide and regional economic development.”
What does this commitment mean for UIS, for Springfield and for Central Illinois? Plenty!
As some SJ-R readers will recall, UIS recently acquired Innovate Springfield, the downtown business incubator founded by the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln. Thanks in part to financial investments by the Foundation, the City of Springfield, and the Land of Lincoln Economic Development Corporation (as well as matching funds from the UI System), Innovate Springfield is becoming a catalyst for economic development in the region – a place where ideas and start-ups can ignite and expand.
According to Executive Director Katie Davison, the new alignment with UIS is already producing impressive results. “Since becoming part of UIS, Innovate Springfield has grown to serve 64 members today, including 14 UIS students,” says Davison.”
We’re providing members with access to legal and financial consulting, workshops and mentors, as well as a creative environment that is nurturing both new business success and innovation.”
“We have more activity and energy in the space every day,” she continues, “and we’re becoming a bridge between the University and the business community that provides clients with better access to the intellectual capital the University has to offer.”
In joining UIS, Innovate Springfield has also been announced as a hub of the UI’s Illinois Innovation Network (IIN)– a system of interconnected university-community-industry-based hubs throughout the state. The Network will be anchored by the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) in Chicago that will coordinate efforts and initatives statewide.
The Illinois General Assembly appropriated funding to help launch the DPI/IIN last spring. UIS is expected to receive part of that funding and conceptual planning and design is now underway for a downtown Innovation Center that will include an expanded Innovate Springfield and other related activities.
Bruce Sommer, the University’s new Director of Economic Development and Innovation, is part of the intellectual capital being invested in this exciting project. A Springfield native who grew up in successful local businesses including Harper Oil Company, Bruce left Illinois after college and spent several years on the East coast as a venture capitalist and angel investor.
“When I came back to Springfield, I simply didn’t see the entrepreneurial culture I was used to on the East Coast,” says Sommer.
“Innovate Springfield and the Springfield hub will provide that culture and will enable us to start new companies, which in turn can attract a wealth of talent and opportunity.”
In addition to teaching entrepreneurship classes on campus and at Innovate Springfield, Sommer is fostering the development of local university-business partnerships to create the capacity for Springfield to be a vital and sustainable hub in the statewide network.
Keenan Dungey is another essential asset for the project. A graduate of the University of Michigan and professor in the UIS Department of Chemistry, Dr. Dungey leads Research and Institutional Effectiveness for the University.
“Thirty UIS faculty are already engaged in system-wide DPI working groups focused on key themes including: Computing and Data, Environment and Water, Health and Wellness, and Food and Agriculture,” says Dungey.
“The intellectual capital this project is harnessing is tremendous,” he continues, “and it is providing new ways for us to intentionally reach outward and consider how faculty, students and programs can be stronger assets for our local community and across the state.”
The Discovery Partners Institute and the Illinois Innovation Network, including a vibrant hub in Illinois’ capital city, is a bold idea – an idea that, if supported, will leverage the collective capacity of the University of Illinois and its partners to collaborate, innovate and build the Illinois economy in a way that has never been done.
Eric Berglund, an expert in regional economic development who is President and CEO of Springfield’s Land of Lincoln Economic Development Corporation, may summarize the project best when he says:
“Adding the resources of the DPI/IIN to the activities of Innovate Springfield is incredibly powerful. Innovation is the driver of economic development and now is the time to expand our thinking about what is possible for a more prosperous future”
… and that’s a public good we need for Springfield and for Central Illinois!
Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois at Springfield