The University of Illinois Springfield is excited to share its vision for the new innovation center that will open in downtown Springfield in 2025. The center is being designed to positively impact our economy, community and citizens. As a 30-year resident of the city's north end —with a background in education, economic development and workforce programs — I am proud to serve as its executive director.

Development is already underway at the UIS-owned building at 401 E. Washington St. – only a few blocks from the state Capitol. Once renovated, the center will drive innovation, economic growth and workforce development across the state. Specifically, the center will work with industry, government and partner institutions to build a robust human capital and innovation pipeline by expanding existing programs and creating new initiatives in business incubation and acceleration, technology commercialization, public policy research and graduate and professional education.

Our new site has a rich history. The three-story, 24,600-square-foot building has been in operation since 1905 and was the home of the Illinois Hotel until 1947. I encourage you to read the story of this site, recently published by Anne Moseley, director of engagement and curator of the UIS Sangamon Experience, at

Significant renovations will be necessary to turn this building into the modern facility needed to achieve our vision. While we plan to add windows and other elements to recapture its welcoming turn-of-the-20th-century look and feel, the inside will be state of the art. We will create spaces that encourage community engagement and collaboration, build innovative classrooms that connect people across the globe and develop cutting-edge technology labs for high-tech, hands-on training.

Innovate Springfield, the university's downtown business incubator, will be at the heart of the center. Embarking on its 10th year, iSPI has helped hundreds of local entrepreneurs launch new businesses. Last year, iSPI companies generated over $20 million in revenue, attracted over $7 million in new startup funding and employed over 300 people in our community. Half of iSPI members are women, a quarter are students and more than one-third are minorities.

To help keep this momentum going, we brought on Ben Hage (also known in the community as Nabih Elhajj) to serve as director of Innovate Springfield. Many know Hage as the leader of the Sangamon CEO program, where he helped nurture the launch of more than 200 student-run businesses. His entrepreneurial background, passion for education and tireless enthusiasm make him a perfect fit for this new role.

The center will build off the success iSPI has created, but it will be more than that. This will be a place for students and the community to get hands-on training in high-demand fields. Working with regional partners, we will develop education and training programs that support local businesses and provide our citizens with in-demand skills. We will lean into UIS' expertise in public policy to offer a platform where legislators, faculty, experts and other stakeholders can collaborate to shape policies and improve lives. These efforts will also include ways to help our nonprofit community expand its impact so they can continue to create positive social change.

This center would not be possible without the generous support of many partners, especially the capital funding authorized by Gov. JB Pritzker to the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) that will provide physical locations for the 15 hubs to bring their ambitious dreams to life. IIN is a statewide network of entrepreneurship, business development and workforce training hubs designed to spur inclusive economic development regionally and throughout the state. Being part of this network connects us with other university and public-private research projects across Illinois and allows us to benefit from partnership opportunities. In 2018, when Innovate Springfield was designated as the first IIN hub, University of Illinois System President Tim Killeen said the endeavor represented the system's "commitment to put our world-class scholarship to work for people here in Springfield, across our state and beyond."

To be effective, the center must be an inclusive space where the community feels welcome and engaged. But this project is more than just a building; it is a call to action. A call for individuals to dream big, think boldly and collaborate relentlessly. To achieve this, we will empower students, faculty and the community to explore new ideas, develop solutions and ignite a culture of entrepreneurship. UIS Chancellor Janet Gooch laid out our objective perfectly when she said that center needs to improve people's lives.

As we work to create this center, we hope to inspire a movement and a mindset that encourages us all to think big. We have ambitious goals, and UIS will need the community's help to make them a reality. I invite you to learn more about our plans and follow our progress at

Robert Kerr was named executive director of innovation and opportunity at the University of Illinois Springfield in July. He is leading UIS' efforts to build an innovation center in downtown Springfield.

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