By Anthony Caciopo
Regional News Editor
John Wightkin has a business vision for Palos Heights, and it’s one of connection, collaboration and creation in an entrepreneurial future.
Wightkin, chair of the Business Department at Trinity Christion College, was on hand at Monday’s meeting of the Palos Heights Business/Economic Advisory Committee to discuss a business incubator/innovation hub on the Trinity campus.
It’s something he says might put the city on the map in a new way.
“We want the community to embrace this,” he said. “Why can’t Palos Heights become the epicenter for entrepreneurial activity in the south suburbs?”
The operation, called Fusion59, “provides students from all disciplines with a place to connect, collaborate, and create a better tomorrow,” according to its website, and Wightkin sees an expansion well beyond the Trinity campus.
Incubators are described by Forbes magazine as facilities and programs designed to assist early-stage companies with services such as working space, supplies, mentoring, educational opportunities and programs.
“I’d like to propose an opportunity,” Wightkin told committee members over lunch at the Palos Heights Recreation Center.
“One of the things we’re doing here, that we can possibly get Palos Heights involved with, is this opportunity to create some ecosystem right here along with Trinity that helps drive economic growth, helps drive startups, helps support small businesses, which is the engine of economic development.”
Wightkin said startup companies account for more than half the new jobs in the U.S. “and it’s probably no surprise here that a lot of economic growth comes from small businesses.”
Statistics from the Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs show that among the 5.6 million U.S. employer firms in 2016, 99 percent are defined as small businesses and among those, 95 percent have fewer than 10 employees.
“Entrepreneurships, startups, are not going to occur only on the coasts anymore,” he said, citing the book “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future” by AOL co-founder Steve Case.
As evidence, Wightkin produced a map on the presentation screen that showed a number of business incubators and hubs that nurture entrepreneurs and their startups. The incubators are located in downtown Chicago, on the city’s North Side and all the way out to Naperville.
But none anywhere near the south or southwest suburbs.
“I look down here and I don’t see anything,” he said, gesturing toward a designated area on the map that showed Palos Heights and Trinity College. “It’s a desert.”
“With Trinity and Palos Heights, we’ve got a great opportunity to create something together. A successful incubator would put Palos Heights on the map as a leader in innovation, community engagement and resident wellness and success,” Wightkin said.
Fusion59, with a name that offers a nod to the year Trinity Christian College was founded (coincidentally the year Palos Heights incorporated as a city, noted Bob Grossart, committee chairman), is currently housed in a “transformed” space in the boardroom at the Trinity library.
Trinity is located at 6601 W. College Drive in Palos Heights.
Plans are in the works, said Wightkin, to move operations into an area on campus that would be easier for the public to reach. He also mentioned the possibility that Fusion59 might someday physically expand to an additional location, off campus and into a building somewhere else in town.
“Fusion is the coming together of people, who together make more than just the separate parts,” he said. “1+1=3.”
Taking part in the presentation were Tom Iwema and Ryan Hesslau. They were seniors last year and each runs his own small business. They are co-directors of Fusion59.
Iwema is the owner and president of IKG Property Maintenance, specializing in commercial painting contracting and environmental abatement, including mold and asbestos, for which his firm is licensed, he said.
Hesslau is the founder and executive director of Forever U, a youth empowerment organization. He’s also the founder of Above the Waves, providing communication and technology counseling for high schools and universities.
Both have degrees from Trinity in Entrepreneurial Management.
“Tom and Ryan came to me last spring and said ‘We want to create this thing called entrepreneur-in-residence, where we are allowed to continue with our startups but also support the entrepreneurial spirit on campus and beyond.’”
“The idea is not only to have physical space, but also have programming workshops, speakers and coaching for small businesses,” said Wightkin.
Trinity is currently one of seven university partners in 1871, a technology and entrepreneurship center located in the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago.
“We’re one year into it and it has paid great dividends,” said Wightkin. The other university partners are Loyola, IIT, Northwestern, University of Chicago, University of Illinois and DePaul.
“1871 has the largest amount of startups in the world under one roof,” he said. “We are in the midst of that ecosystem. We get exposure. Our students have had great opportunity to pursue their education beyond Trinity’s campus. With the Palos Heights partnership, we would have the opportunity to leverage that all together.”
Committee Chairman Grossart commented, “We do a study every year to see the (business) occupancy rate in Palos Heights. It’s not as high as we’d like it.
“We found through studies that we seem to attract new businesses but we lose as many as we attract, kind of like treading water,” he said. “We’re wondering how maybe this could work, to get businesses started and find a home for them in Palos Heights that would be a long-term fit.
“We’d certainly be happy to work with you, to help your group grow and help Palos Heights grow,” said Grossart as the presentation wrapped up.
He said that businesses sometimes come to Palos Heights needing to learn more and that they might want to go to Fusion59 to ask, ‘How do I really want to get this thing going,’ vs. just opening the door and saying, ‘Here I am, world.’”
Learn more about the Trinity College business incubator/innovation hub at www.fusion59.com.