Higher education, economic development team wins $2.4 million for local aerospace industry

Photo of a rocket launchRockford is one of 20 U.S. cities that have won a federal Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge grant.

A grant totaling $2.4 million has been awarded to a collaborative made up of Northern Illinois University, Rock Valley College, the Rockford Area Economic Development Council and EIGERlab to accelerate job creation and innovation for small and medium-sized aerospace companies in the region.

The Workforce Investment Board, the Rockford Region Economic Development District and the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning are also partners in the grant.

This project will enable the rapid acceleration of the Rockford Area Aerospace Network (RAAN) to develop the Rockford area workforce capacity and the collaboration infrastructure necessary to meet more quickly the dramatic aerospace growth anticipated for the next two decades.

The grant is funded by the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA), Department of Labor’s Employment Training Administration (ETA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA).

The process was extremely competitive, with 125 applications received from all over the country. Northern Illinois University’s Office of Sponsored Projects and Rockford Area Strategic Initiatives will administer the grant.

Mansour Tahernezhadi

Mansour Tahernezhadi

Mansour Tahernezhadi, associate dean for research and graduate programs, NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology is principal investigator (PI) for the grant. Promod Vohra, dean of NIU’s College of Engineering & Engineering Technology, and Joseph Santner, ROCK senior program manager, are co-PIs.

The primary goals of the project are to:

  • Grow the market for the Rockford area aerospace cluster from a regional to a national and international basis.
  • Enhance technical knowledge to accelerate the advancement of small and medium-sized businesses through technology transfer and meeting the growing needs of the global aerospace industry.
  • Promote access to a qualified workforce, including new starts, and nurture disadvantaged populations through STEM education, training and internship.

To achieve these goals, a variety of new programs and initiatives are being created and implemented in the region. Some of these include:

  • New research and technology projects facilitated through RAAN.
  • Creation of a new program to facilitate a seamless, cost-effective transition of high-potential students from Rock Valley College to Northern Illinois University’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.
  • Engineers in Residence program to place NIU engineering faculty and graduate students in Rockford area companies to assist in innovative practices.
  • Create a new system to effectively link regional aerospace suppliers to customers.
  • Mentoring and educational support to broaden inclusion of underserved populations in high-growth clusters.

‘Excellent news’

  • John G. Peters, NIU president: “This is excellent news for the Rockford area and strong affirmation of the power of collaboration among higher education, economic development and workforce development. It is gratifying to see the long-time involvement of NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology as well as our establishment of the Office of Regional Engagement/Rockford paying dividends for the region in accelerating research, academic partnership, innovation, workforce development and innovation.”
  • Jack Becherer, RVC president: “This project will provide new pathways to success for students and aspiring entrepreneurs. As important, it will provide opportunity for achieving collaboration among our community college, NIU and the aerospace and manufacturing sectors. Personally, I see this venture as increasing awareness of the value and aspiration for engineering and science careers. Thus, it will ‘lift all boats’ in our region.”
  • Promod Vohra, dean of the NIU College of Engineering & Engineering Technology: “Rockford is a gem in the field of manufacturing and this grant is yet another example of its recognition as a leader. NIU is proud to be a strong partner with the Rockford region and we are grateful to all our local partners for their support of this initiative. All of us at NIU and the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology are excited about the opportunities and anticipated outcomes ahead.”
  • Jeff Kaney, CEO of Kaney Aerospace and chairman of the Rockford Area Aerospace Network: “We can all be extremely proud that the Departments of Commerce and Labor and the Small Business Administration identified Rockford’s aerospace industry as a high-growth industry cluster worthy of investment by the federal government.”
  • Janyce Fadden, president of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council: “This award demonstrates the federal government’s understanding of how important the Rockford region’s aerospace industry is to building our nation’s economy. Investments in this high-tech, high-growth sector will just further strengthen our region’s economic future.”
  • Scott Christiansen, chairman of the Winnebago County Board: “We have always recognized the aerospace sector as extremely significant to our regional economy. This award puts a national spotlight on the good things that are happening in our county and I couldn’t be more pleased to see this investment in building the strength of our vital aerospace industry.”
  • Lawrence J. Morrissey, mayor of Rockford: “We are very pleased to hear that the Rockford area has received a grant through the President’s Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge to further expand our aerospace cluster in the Rockford Region. Increasing economic activity in aerospace is not only critical for our region, it is of extreme importance to our national economy and security.”
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