Celebrating Rockford’s entrepreneurs: a look back and ahead

Dan Cataldi - EIGERlabI love passionate, creative, risk-taking entrepreneurs who start businesses or privately grow existing enterprises with little recognition or fanfare.  As I retire from NIU EIGERlab at the end of this year, I am humbled and honored to have been in a position to support these innovators who quietly and steadily make a huge impact on the community.

Celebrating passionate entrepreneurs and creative innovators is Rockford’s history.  It’s in our DNA.

Over the years, NIU EIGERlab clients have turned their ideas, inspiration and effort into businesses that continue to create jobs and wealth for the region.  Just a few examples:

  • B/E Aerospace was once two engineers with an idea. They incubated the business at EIGERlab, refining their designs, making prototypes and getting ready for the marketplace. Today, the company employs more than 40 engineers and other professionals in a new Rockford facility.
  • Comply365 got its start in the basement of the founders’ home. They pitched their business at FastPitch and Innovate Illinois, polished their business model and attracted start-up funding.  Today, 75% of the commercial aircraft compliance industry uses their software and they employ more than 70 professional staff.
  • Accelerated Machine Design began as an incubating EIGERlab business, designing and prototyping innovative custom equipment for aerospace and health care customers. Today, they employ 20 engineers and other professionals in their newly remodeled manufacturing facility in Rockford.
  • sockTABs won top honors at FastPitch and gained national visibility and investment when the product was pitched on ABC’s Shark Tank. Today, the product is sold on the Home Shopping Network and in major retail outlets.

Since its inception, the annual FastPitch Competition has drawn more than 450 participants, all putting their ideas and business models in front of local investors, bankers and business leaders.  Many of these have turned into lifestyle businesses and some have exploded into major employers in our region.

Supporting local entrepreneurs is important work.  Solopreneurs, inventors, innovators, and existing small and medium sized privately held companies are an important sector of our local economy.  Their impact must not be overlooked or underestimated.  They should be encouraged and celebrated.

Rockford has embraced its manufacturing legacy and is offering strong support to this important sector.  Similar effort should be directed toward economic gardening, finding ways to grow our own small and medium sized privately held businesses.  Other sectors of the economy offer great promise as well: IT and digital companies are producing new high income jobs at a rapid pace, and small privately-held health-related businesses now top all other sectors in our region.

There is a lot to celebrate in the future-focused, transformational economic and workforce development activities underway in our region.  I urge leaders of these initiatives to develop strategies and incentives to diversify the economy and develop plans to support the growth of our own small and medium sized companies.

It has been my pleasure to work with a great group of dedicated individuals at EIGERlab: Mike Cobert, Sherry Pritz, Jeff Metters, and Tina Leombruni, and as of two years ago, Dr. Rena Cotsones of NIU.  The community is fortunate to have this team in place to continue NIU EIGERlab’s important work.

Finally, I want to say thank you to Northern Illinois University.  Did you know that NIU has had a Regional Engagement Office in Rockford since 2009?  Did you know that NIU purchased the assets of EIGERlab from the Rockford Area Economic Development Council two years ago to ensure that its important economic development work could continue?  Going forward, I hope NIU will get the recognition it deserves for its engagement, investment and contributions in the Rockford area.

For me, NIU EIGERlab has been a labor of love.  I leave with great memories of the journey and high hopes for the future of Rockford.


by Dan Cataldi, executive director, NIU EIGERlab