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Year in Review 2014: Southwestern Illinois

Gigabit service draws interest among Highland’s businesses, residents

    HIGHLAND — The city’s new gigabit service gives residents an edge on their Internet needs, but it’s also serving as a catalyst for new and existing businesses.
    The attraction was clear in December when seven finalists participated in the 2014 Highland Gigabit Challenge business plan competition. The Challenge was oriented toward tech startups hoping to build on a dream of launching a successful business. Some 17 applied for a chance at $50,000 in cash prizes and in-kind professional services.
    Squarefruit Labs of St. Louis was the top winner. It will receive more than $15,000 in cash, in addition to in-kind professional services, including free office space in Highland, accounting, legal and marketing and branding services. It will also receive a free year of a gigabit Internet connection through Highland Communication Services.
    Presently operating in the Cambridge Innovation Center in St. Louis, Squarefruit is headed by Chico Weber, a recent graduate of SIUE’s School of Engineering. Weber and his team, consisting of Venkata Bolisetty and Gizem Altintas, are focused on developing, implementing and deploying next generation 3-D printers. The unique 7-axis printers will enable customers to integrate other materials, for example circuit boards, into the standard 3-D process.
    Two web app startups were named as $5,000 runners-up. EatKidFriendly.com, a web application to help people identify and rate family oriented restaurants, is the brainchild of Brandon Lance, of Edwardsville. SIUE student Wade Berner won the other $5,000 cash prize with his Internet-based idea, Seated App, a mobile application that works directly with restaurant hostesses to reduce waiting times and improve eating experiences, at a reduced cost to the restaurants.
    All the winners must commit to locate in the Highland community for at least a year.
    The Illinois Metro East Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville partnered with the city to organize the competition. The city secured many additional area sponsors.
    The competition, while unusual for a community the size of Highland (population 9,919), is in some ways a natural. The town has a long history of entrepreneurs.
    “From Pet Milk to Basler Electric to Wick’s to, of course, Ralph Korte and the Korte Co., there’s an entrepreneurial spirit. This allows us to tap into the next generation of that,” said Lisa Peck, economic development and marketing coordinator for Highland.
    In March 2010, following an overwhelming support of voters, Highland began construction of a fiber-to-home system called Highland Communication Services. The system is 90 percent built out, Peck said. The first focus was on residential service.
    “Now, we’re reaching to the outside,” said Peck, who sees the value of gigabit service as a tool to spur growth and innovation.