Transform Rockford: Changing the Paradigm for Innovators

Do you have all the tools needed to launch and scale your business? In the effort to strategically improve the region, there’s a renewed focus on supporting entrepreneurs through every step of the journey.

So, you want to launch or scale your own business? That’s great. Do you know where to begin?

There are many paths one can take toward building and expanding a business idea, but around our region, those paths aren’t always as interconnected – or as well-known – as they could be.

Kevin Holdmann understands the problem from two perspectives. As the owner of TAC Rockford, he’s spent 30 years navigating the challenges of business ownership. As founder of the nonprofit Rockford Makerspace, he’s helping aspiring business owners to seize their dreams. The gritty makerspace, located off an alleyway in downtown Rockford, is an important starting point for a new generation – one that’s changing the paradigm for good.

What exactly is a makerspace? Essentially, it’s a place for engineers, hobbyists and entrepreneurs of all kinds to produce – and learn how to produce – whatever they like. At Rockford Makerspace, members can use machines like lathes, CNC, laser cutters and woodworking tools to build their skills and create new things. A bevy of classes, taught by other members, makes it a communal space for invention and self-discovery. It’s a place where new ideas can get their genesis before they become “the next big thing.”

If Rockford is to become a Top 25 region by 2025, Holdmann and other local leaders believe it’s essential for entrepreneurs to have local resources for success. And that requires an “innovation ecosystem” where big ideas can become a reality, right here in northern Illinois.

“What we know to be true of Top 25 communities and fast-growing communities is that they’ve figured out what their ecosystem needs are, in order for startups and innovative companies to be successful and thrive,” says David Sidney, executive director of Transform Rockford. “When we look at – fill in the blank: Austin, Denver, Boulder, Bay Area – the core essence of these communities is that there’s a true ecosystem in place that allows essentially any entrepreneur to start his or her business and scale it.”

What’s missing in Rockford right now, Sidney says, is a truly interconnected system where entrepreneurs can access everything they need. So, Transform Rockford’s volunteers are homing in on the processes and projects that will ensure the right conditions for success.

Borrowing from an approach called “strategic doing,” volunteers began with a framed question that defines their vision: Imagine if we are a globally recognized hub for aspiring entrepreneurs and innovative companies. What would that look like?

As volunteers explored the question, they saw four distinct themes that defined a local innovation ecosystem: support networks, brainpower and talent, quality places and new narratives. Those themes then became the pathways for developing new and existing projects through Transform Rockford:

  • Support Networks: Launch 815 provides a roadmap for the entrepreneurial process. Available at, this resource suggests critical starting points and steps toward a business launch. But it’s not comprehensive – not yet, says Spitty Tata, program manager for Transform Rockford. It’s still possible for an entrepreneur to slip through the cracks or to become discouraged when certain resources are hard to find.
  • Brainpower/Talent: Makerspaces train and empower business owners early in the process, helping to refine ideas and talents. While it’s often well-used by hobbyists and tinkerers, Rockford Makerspace could offer interesting applications for career exploration and talent development, Holdmann says.

    “They can go to a Saturday class over at the makerspace and spend four hours getting introduced,” he adds.

    “They’re like, ‘yeah, that was fun,’ or ‘that’s not for me,’ and then there are the Rock Valleys of the world where they can take classes and earn degrees.”
  • Quality Places: Spaces at Discovery Center Museum can excite young minds, while a lab at Rockford Public Library helps adults to explore their interests. NIU EIGERlab offers the most comprehensive setup because it’s a professional-level business incubator and center for product development. The nonprofit Rockford Makerspace, falling somewhere in between, provides a “help you help yourself” experience. Members pay for 24/7 access to the shop, and they benefit from workshops and open shop nights where they support each other through the journey.
  • New Narratives: It’s critical that key assets be well-known and promoted. So, Transform Rockford is doing its part to change the narrative and rewrite the story that says, “you have to go outside the region to succeed.” They’re working to connect resources, build the message and promote it through a new podcast. Called “Innov8 and Cre8,” the podcast is aimed at entrepreneurs and innovators in our region.

“The idea is to create this culture, so that through one project after another, there’s a tipping point at which we will have so many resources available that it’s going to be very obvious that we have an innovation ecosystem here,” says Tata. “That’s what we hope to achieve: Innovators and entrepreneurs flocking to Rockford.”

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