Latest SOLOMO News
Mar 12, 2019
Peoria NEXT celebrates 10th anniversary Wednesday Aug 30, 2017 at 7:42 PMAug 30, 2017 at 8:28 PM PEORIA — Peter Johnsen calls it a building that's had a profound effect on Peoria. The Peoria NEXT Innovation Center, 801 W. Main St., which celebrated its 10th anniversary with an open house Wednesday, changed how Peoria thinks of itself, said Johnsen, chairman of Peoria NEXT, the consortium of area firms and institutions that got together in 2001 to spur biotech development in central Illinois. The former director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Peoria who later served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Bradley University recalled the expectations that accompanied the opening of the business incubator on Main Street in 2007. "The center gives us a specific focus in the development of ideas into jobs," Johnsen said at the time. In its 10 years of operation, startups have come and gone in the building, some realizing success, others suffering the fate of so many small businesses. "In the 17 years since Peoria NEXT was formed, we've had a lot of leadership changes," said Johnsen. He added that Dr. Dick Lister, the former associate dean at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria who served as managing director of Peoria NEXT until taking a position at the University of Florida in 2007, deserved credit as "the unsung hero" of Peoria NEXT. As a member of Bradley's Small Business Development Center, Ross Miller has worked out of the Innovation Center since it opened. Last November he became director of technical commercialization for the center as well as head of the Institute for Innovation Through Collaboration, an enterprise spotlighting BU's ongoing commitment to bring engineering and business together. "The public needs to see that we have thriving companies here," Miller said. "Caterpillar's headquarters move (out of Peoria) showed that nothing's permanent. We have to look at who's here, to look at the companies we have. " What follows are brief summaries on just a few of the companies that have made the Innovation Center their home. EcoThermics EcoThermics Corp. CEO Merle Rocke has always been ready to pump up the volume. The company that started at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center is known for its innovative heat pump technology. "We have two labs — one in Ohio and one in Mark, Ill. Today we're a virtual tenant in the Peoria NEXT building," said Rocke, who had a 35-year career with Caterpillar Inc. before starting EcoThermics. The EcoThermics thermal pump, a device able to both heat and cool with marked energy savings, has many industrial applications, he said. An Iowa bakery that used the company's product found the heat pump paid for itself in 30 months, said Rocke. "We need to partner with a bigger company to get to net profitability," he said. Rocke expects the company to be acquired sometime in the near future, something that he's planned on for years. Intellihot When Sridhar Deivasigamani went down to his basement to view a leaky water heater, he was shocked at what he found. "It was technology that hasn't changed since the 1890s," said the former Caterpillar Inc. engineer. He and Sivaprasad Akasam, another former Caterpillar engineer, came up with their own tankless water heater. Designed for both commercial and residential use, the tankless heater can reduce energy use by 40 percent. The technology provides an endless supply of hot water by using a heating exchanger that condenses flue gases and extracts heat typically lost by a conventional water heater. Deivasigamani is quick to point out that there's nothing new about tankless water heaters in general. "They were developed in the 1960s, but installation costs remain high. Our unit doesn't require expensive installation," he said. Intellihot set up shop at the Innovation Center in 2009. In 2011, the company moved to Galesburg, where it set up shop as Intellihot Green Technologies in that town’s Sustainable Business Center. Lumec Control Products Lumec started up at the Innovation Center in 2008 with a plan to devise the world's best control valve. Expectations ran high. In a 2009 interview, CEO Paul Luebbers identified flow control valves as a $35 billion market. "Right now we don't even know how big a company this would be. It's as big as we want to take it," he said at the time. "The biggest benefit we get out of (being in the Innovation Center) is exposure. Being affiliated with Peoria NEXT helps with potential investors, plus it's a great atmosphere," noted Luebbers in 2009. The company later moved to larger quarters on Allen Road. But there are no guarantees for startup firms, even those with a solid product that are able to raise capital. "It was all happy — rainbows and unicorns. We were successful in raising money, but where we failed was in marketing and sales," said Eric McMasters, an engineer who helped found the Lumec company. By 2014, with Lumec closed, McMasters returned to the Innovation Center to work up a new project. NEXMachine For Dan Kauppi, the business rise and fall came more quickly. NEXMachine started up at the Innovation Center in 2013, utilizing Kauppi's experience in using cloud computing to help customers. A former employee at Salesforce, a San Francisco-based maker of customer-management software, Kauppi said clients ranged from corporate giants like Caterpillar Inc. to small not-for-profits. "At NEXMachine, we give our customers the tools and the solutions they need to transform their business. Our vision is to be the pre-eminent solution provider on the cloud in the central Illinois region," he said in a 2015 interview. But things went south in a hurry. By October 2016, NEXMachine's staff of 10 was down to one-and-a-half. NEXMachine was done and Kauppi was out of money, he said. Solomo Having both suffered startup failures, McMasters and Kauppi then joined forces, launching a company at the Innovation Center called Solomo in February 2017. Both men say their previous experience has made them better prepared for their present endeavor. "You can't wear rose-colored glasses. You need to be prepared to pivot," said Kauppi. Solomo, named for "Social-Local-Mobile," is another effort to provide computer help to companies, said Kauppi. "We implement software to help companies, companies that are trying to be disruptive in their market," he said. Things are looking up this time around, said Kauppi. "We're keeping eight people busy here with four full-time employees," he said. Firefly Energy If there was a poster child for Peoria NEXT, it would have to be Firefly Energy, a company that developed a high-tech battery spun out of research done at Caterpillar Inc. Starting in 2003, Firefly appeared to be on the fast track to success, signing million-dollar contracts with Electrolux and the U.S. Army. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, toured Firefly's offices, located at the time at Illinois Central College's Peoria campus, in 2008. The senator had announced earlier that $3.2 million in federal funds had been budgeted for Firefly's 3-D advanced battery, designed to replace traditional lead acid batteries. The hope was that a new battery would benefit the U.S. military, involved then as now in hot-weather combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Durbin. Peoria County pledged $1 million in a county reserve fund and $2.3 million in sales tax revenues while the city of Peoria guaranteed a $6 million loan with National City Bank with a pledge of $3.3 million in utility tax revenues. The city and county received stock options for their investment. Despite the financial backing and good press, Firefly filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Mukesh Bhandari, head of Electrotherm Co. in Ahmedabad, India, turned the power back on with his acquisition of Firefly later in 2010. The company, now at 6533 N. Galena Road, continues to market a carbon foam battery but on a limited basis with a small staff. Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 and email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter@Steve Tarter and facebook.com/tartersource.