Updated: Innovation Celebration winners announced
URBANA — Downtown Champaign was a "kind of barren place," Carlos Nieto said, when he returned to town in the mid-1990s.
But in the years since, he and his partners have opened 10 restaurants and bars downtown and in southwest Champaign — among them, Jupiters, Cowboy Monkey and The Highdive.
Now Nieto said he feels Champaign has reached "a tipping point" and competes well with other communities.
"My objective is to make Champaign a more exciting place," he said in a video shown after he was named winner of the Economic Development Impact Award at the ninth annual Innovation Celebration.
Nieto was not present for the ceremony Thursday on the University of Illinois campus. The event honored nine individuals and teams for innovation and entrepreneurship.
But in the video, he said he enjoyed "enriching the fabric" of the community and "creating options." He said galleries and independent businesses such as his help make the city distinct.
Nieto, whose family emigrated from Peru when his dad came to teach at the University of Illinois, said there's often only "one degree of separation" between people in Champaign-Urbana. He said it's "fantastic" to be in a city where one can be "embraced by pillars of the community."
He wasn't the only entrepreneur singing the praises of Champaign County.
Dan Cermak of Volition, who won the Entrepreneurial Excellence Management Award, said it's an "anomaly" for a video game company to be based in a small Midwestern city. But he said that difference enabled Volition to thrive.
"Creativity and innovation comes from balance between work and home," he said.
He called late 2012 and early 2013 a time of "craziness" for Volition, when its former owner filed for bankruptcy and the studio was purchased at auction by Koch Media.
During those months of uncertainty, Volition retained its employees, partly because they realized they made "special games" and were doing what they loved, he said.
"The guys didn't miss a beat" in completing and shipping out "Saints Row IV," Cermak said.
Dennis Beard of Serra Ventures won the Entrepreneurial Excellence Advocacy Award, but missed the ceremony because his dad had major surgery.
At Open Prairie Ventures, Beard worked with young companies such as iCyt, Argus Systems and EpiWorks to help get them off the ground. Today, he does similar work at Serra Ventures, advising firms such as Personify, Intelliwheels and Oso Technologies.
In a video, Beard said Champaign-Urbana was once "in the middle of the pack" of communities in terms of helping start-up companies and now it's "a leader."
"I think we have it figured out here," he said.
The evening's emcee, Laura Frerichs of the UI Research Park, called Innovation Celebration "our little version of the Academy Awards."
Perhaps the most Oscar-worthy acceptance speech came from Nishana Ismail, vice president of Servabo, which won the Student Startup Award.
"Hey, we got the Oscar!" an obviously thrilled Ismail exclaimed to the audience of more than 200. She said the idea she and Timothy Deppen had for a smartphone security app would never have developed into a company "if we were not in this community."
She said she initially planned to stay only two years, but it's been 3-1/2 years already and "I think I'll be here for a long time."
Fellow winner Brett Walker of Electroninks, maker of the Circuit Scribe pen that draws electrical circuits, called Champaign-Urbana "extremely supportive."
He spent a year in Boston, but when it came time to start the company, "it became very obvious that starting a business out here (in Champaign-Urbana) was the natural move. ... I can't think of a better place to start a small business."
Stephen Boppart, head of the UI's Biophotonics Imaging Lab, won the Innovation Transfer Award for his role in developing optical imaging technology behind Diagnostic Photonics and PhotoniCare.
UI curriculum and instruction Professor Fouad Abd-El-Kahlick and the EnLIST team won the Social Venture Award for enhancing science teaching in area school districts through a National Science Foundation grant. The project involved 60 UI staff members and 164 school teachers.
Parkland College President Tom Ramage presented the college's Innovation in Engagement Award to instructor Kerris Lee and a team of Parkland students who developed the United Way Pre-K app, which helps parents get their children ready for kindergarten.
Justin Hill of Prominic.NET accepted the Innovation Longevity Award, noting the company started 18 years ago "in a barn building on the ag campus" that was the forerunner of today's EnterpriseWorks incubator.
"There were days we couldn't find parking spots because of the antique tractor show," he said.
Hill said he has concentrated largely on his company and wasn't aware of many of the businesses and projects recognized Thursday.
"It's eye-opening how many cool things are happening," he said.
The list of winners
Economic Development Impact Award: Restaurant/bar owner Carlos Nieto
Entrepreneurial Excellence Management Award: Dan Cermak of Volition
UI Innovation Transfer Award: Stephen Boppart, head of the Biophotonics Imaging Lab at the Beckman Institute
Innovation Longevity Award: Prominic.NET
Entrepreneurial Excellence Advocacy Award: Dennis Beard of Serra Ventures
Entrepreneurial Excellence New Venture Award: Electroninks
Entrepreneurial Excellence Student Startup Award: Servabo
Entrepreneurial Excellence Social Venture Award: Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, UI professor of curriculum and instruction, and the team of EnLIST (Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM Teaching & Learning)
Parkland College's Innovation in Engagement Award: Kerris Lee and team of Parkland students who developed the United Way Pre-K app