Real Impact stories spotlight the real difference that people, programs and partnerships – across the system – make on the state's economic, social and cultural well-being. For more, meet Lura.
It’s a good thing Pierre Paul’s childhood ponderings weren’t spot on. If they were, his inventions and myriad others that improve people’s lives today wouldn’t exist.
“Even as a kid I studied philosophy. I wished I had been alive to know Socrates and Plato. That’s when everyone was making amazing things. But I thought they had already invented everything,” Paul said.
Fast forward a couple decades, and Paul is the innovation award-winning CEO of We Hear You, a Peoria-based start-up with two tech inventions on the frontlines. There’s the company namesake, an American Sign Language translator. And there’s Push. The universal remote helps people with different abilities open accessible doors with ease. Paul’s alma mater, Bradley University, is installing Push all over its campus.
“I became very excited when I saw Pierre’s tech solving real-world challenges better than the existing solutions. He’s a confident entrepreneur with connections to amazing resources right here in Illinois,” said Bruce Sommer, director of economic development and innovation at the University of Illinois Springfield and leader of Springfield’s Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) hub. “Distillery Labs, the network of IIN hubs, iVenture Accelerator and others – we are all on his side with resources and want to see his team succeed.”
Through this kind of collaboration-centered innovation, start-up and spin-off companies related to the University of Illinois System generated $838 million in added income for the state economy in fiscal year 2021. The 2022 economic value fact sheet provides highlights about how the system contributes $19 billion annually to the state’s economy.
But how does a Peoria-based start-up founded by a Bradley alum become part of the U of I System’s economic development story?
In Paul’s case, there are three key links.
Peoria’s Distillery Labs is one of 15 hubs in the IIN, a collaborative that ensures Illinois’ strong role in the 21st century knowledge-based economy. Distillery Labs’ focus areas include economic development, entrepreneurship and business incubation. Support from both the IIN and Distillery Labs helped make We Hear You the first iVenture cohort member not borne straight out of one of three U of I System universities. iVenture, powered by Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, gives innovators guidance from ideation to testing to the marketplace.
Each link offers unique and intertwining capabilities.
“All of these organizations partner to ensure best practices for effectively resourcing entrepreneurs throughout the state,” Sommer said. “We join together to share our experiences and expertise, which leads to enhanced outcomes for the start-ups and the Illinois economy.”
Add social justice to the mix, and even more magic happens.
“Part of We Hear You’s secret sauce is Pierre’s push for radical inclusion,” said Andrew Ngui of Distillery Labs and the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. “We should all be flipping the switch so everyone feeling invited and included is the default, not the exception.”
The atmosphere of support in Peoria’s innovation community is practically tangible.
“We see so many allies for the community and entrepreneurs making sure everyone is leveling each other up every step of the way,” We Hear You COO Bethanie Couri said about Distillery Labs.
And Paul lauds the same commitment at iVenture every chance he gets.
“They created a network of visionaries helping start-ups by creating space for them to grow,” he said. “It’s a perfect place to test real-life scenarios, to learn by doing and making mistakes.”
He also offers this advice for future inventors.
“Just because something has been done doesn’t meant it can’t be done better. We stop ourselves, but we shouldn’t. We need to develop tech off other people’s work. And we need to be part of communities that can help us evolve and grow our ideas,” he said.
The University of Illinois System’s impact through networks of expertise and support for innovators is just part of what makes us Altogether Extraordinary.