In 2015, Popular Mechanics magazine listed Urbana as the 11th best city in America in which to found a startup. All cheeky jokes about their writers' understanding of the cost of living for real people and any sideways mentions that Research Park is actually in Champaign aside, Popular Mechanics is definitely onto something.
For example, since Research Park's first door opened in 2001, the facility has repeatedly been recognized as one of the top startup incubators in the country and has contributed to the success of a number of companies and to the imagination and self-confidence of most of its associates. It's also clear that both the startups hatched at Research Park and those that come later like to stay in the area. The website AngelList which helps startups find angel investors (individuals who provide capital for a startup, generally in exchange for convertible debt or ownership equity) and vice-versa, states that Champaign has 32 companies enrolled on their site and 9,452 investors while Urbana has 7 enrolled companies and 9,447 investors as of January 23rd, 2016. Considering that there is no way that every angel investor and every company in the C-U area has enrolled in this site, this is impressive. Clearly there's something in the water around Champaign-Urbana that encourages the bright ideas that become small businesses and the bright ideas that get other people to support them.
It seems fitting, then, that for at least one night a year people in the area should get together and celebrate these startups and the people who help make them possible. Since 2006, that night has been the Innovation Celebration, whose tagline is “Recognizing the Entrepreneurial Spirit on Campus and in the Community”. The event is hosted by the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, U of I, Parkland College, and various community sponsors. The event is described by its organizers as “not merely an award for accomplishment, but a benchmark of success for those outstanding individuals, organizations and corporations who are nominated and selected to receive this prestigious award.” Although my moral code won't let me support their omission of the Oxford comma in that sentence, it does make me believe in the intended purpose of the event.
And so, because of my belief in this mission, I attended Innovation Celebration this past Friday at Krannert Center. I had never been to Krannert before, and the only familiarity I had with startups in the area was a Kickstarter to which my girlfriend donated last year. I was looking forward to an eye-opening night of learning.
As soon as I arrived, I knew I was not to be disappointed. Krannert Center itself seemed to me a wonderful example of Brutalist Architecture meets Art Moderne. I entered, however, into a beautiful entryway that (in contrast to the exterior) was warm, cozy, and inviting. Immediately in front of me was a very short row of booths that I first thought were abandoned startup booths, but soon realized were booths for the event's partner organizations. I passed by a couple unattended booths for various local initiatives, smiled politely at one or two attended booths, and made my way past the speaking podium and assortment of chairs and tables toward the faint smell of hors d'oeurves and the mouth-watering and unmistakable clink of bottles-on-glasses.
At first, I decided to hold off on the booze. I was working, after all, but I caught sight of the huge number of people present. Men and women in suits and Sunday clothes (and some in t-shirts and jeans — perhaps more appropriate for the startup crowd) were packed in, chatting and laughing and nibbling on finger foods piled on little plastic plates. Personally, large crowds make me nervous, and I realized I wouldn't even be able to work unless I managed to get over my phobias.
I moseyed on up to what I found out was called the Stage 5 Bar and ordered a bourbon. After a small mishap involving a spillage (and a horrible waste of perfectly good bourbon), I had drink-in-hand and was ready to meet whatever came.
I passed through a whirring crowd and towards the long double-row of tables which served as the booths for various startup demonstrations. My initial emotion was one of awe. Now, I understand that Champaign-Urbana is a big place, but to see that many local companies represented was startling.
I tried to talk to a representative from every company to discuss their business model and products or services. The breadth of knowledge and skill represented along with the enthusiasm and dedication exhibited by the entrepreneurs was enough to make me question whether I had any value in comparison. To be honest, I was a little envious of these entrepreneurs. I was envious of their lust for progress, their raw and unabashed desire to do good and to improve the world. Before long, though, the envy was replaced with pride. I'm proud to be a part of the same community as these fine folk.
There was a demonstration of super low-cost prosthetic hands that worked via muscle impulses. There was a presentation from a startup which wanted to help other businesses (small and large) to become more self-sufficient with respect to programming and constructing automated processes. There was a company which offers wheelchair wheels with gears like on bicycles. There was a demonstration of a revolutionary light-based tool for imaging the middle ear to help detect infections or other issues.
But I digress. The focus of the evening were the awards. All told, there were 9 awards given. These were the Innovation in Engagement Award presented by Parkland College, the Innovation Transfer Award presented by U of I; The Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards for Social Venture, Student Startup, New Venture, Advocacy, and Management; and the Innovation Awards in Longevity and Economic Development Impact. A new award for this year (and hopefully into the foreseeable future) was the Alexis Wernsing Innovation Award.
The award names might be intuitive to some, but since they weren't to me I'll err on the side of caution and explain them. (All descriptions are from Innovation Celebration's website. I am not at fault for aggrandizing language.)
The Innovation in Engagement Award recognizes an individual or group at Parkland College who has “shown support of the college's community engagement mission.” This year, the award went to Parkland College's Dean Marietta Turner for her establishment of a food pantry at the college.
The Innovation Transfer Award recognizes an individual or group from the University of Illinois whose research has “resulted in either a discovery or a work with the potential for significant societal impact.” This year, the award was presented to Dr. Paul Hergenrother for his work in learning how to directly target certain types of cancer cells.
The Entrepreneurial Excellence: Social Venture Award is intended for groups or individuals who “serve as change agents by creating and implementing sustainable solutions to reshape society, benefit humanity, and address social concerns.” The award was given to the Pens to Lens competition. Pens to Lens encourages K-12 students to submit scripts to the competition. Selected scripts are turned into actual short films by local filmmakers and then screened for the community.
The Entrepreneurial Excellence: Student Startup Award goes to a startup formed by students in the last three years which “demonstrates a commitment to continuing success through entrepreneurial talent, creativity and energy.” This year the honor was awarded to BioAnalytics, a biotech company working to improve and streamline the next generation of protein analysis tools.
The Entrepreneurial Excellence: New Venture Award is for a company formed in the last three years, which “demonstrates a commitment to continuing success through entrepreneurial talent, creativity and energy.” (Basically the same as the student startup award except that companies founded by non-students are eligible.) The award went to Inprentus, a precision optics company which focuses on manufacturing blazed diffraction gratings for x-ray and extreme ultraviolet light.
The Entrepreneurial Excellence: Advocacy Award goes to a group or individual which “actively engage, encourage, coach and mentor entrepreneurs in the community, and provide extensive support to help them achieve success.” The award this year was presented to Dr. Paul Magelli, the senior director of the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the U of I College of Business and founder of Illinois Business Consulting, the largest student-run management consulting organization in the United States.
The Entrepreneurial Excellence: Management Award is presented to a group or individual which demonstrates expertise in assembling resources, creating an organization, and works “to build and implement effective action plans.” This year, the award was accepted by Mike Folk who is founder and CEO of the HDF Group, a group whose purpose is to help Heirarchal Data Format to evolve and remain relevant and useful through the development and maintenance of its various technologies.
The Innovation: Longevity Award recognizes those enterprises “whose sustained success is the direct result of continued innovation over many years”. The award was given to Wolfram Research for their dedication to trailblazing and innovation since the launching of their almighty Mathematica in 1988.
The Innovation: Economic Development Impact Award goes to an individual or group which “has successfully commercialized innovations while demonstrating a commitment to positive, local, economic impact.” The award was presented to Carle Illinois College of Medicine, the new engineering-based Medical school (and allegedly the first of its kind) which will hopefully begin classes during the 2017-2018 school year.
The Alexis Wernsing Innovation Award is named in honor of the U of I Art History student who passed away in October of 2015. “It is intended to recognize an individual or team from U of I that has channeled their experience living with a disability into positive change through the creation of new products, environments, or protocols that enhance quality of life.” This year, the award was presented to Alexis Wernsing's family in memory of her and in honor of her contributions to accessibility technologies.
At times, the Innovation Celebration was a very emotional ceremony. I'm sure that at least once, there wasn't a dry eye in the place. Still, there were reasons to laugh and to be joyous, and when the final award had been given and the bar and food tables were re-opened, I donned my coat and my hat and strode back out over the $1 million Thai teak flooring of the lobby and into the cold night air warmed by an ember of hope and a sense of pride in this community.
Photos courtesy of Sam Logan.