December 11, 2014

Center helps company expand to international markets

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Little River Research & Design has grown from a garage project that began in 1991 into an international business that educates people on how rivers and river ecosystems work. The Illinois Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has played a major role in the company’s development. 

Steve Gough began working on “emriver” geomodels – hands-on river process simulators – around 1997 in Champaign. Over the next decade, he moved his work to different offices around the state before opening the business in Carbondale in 2007. 

With the help of the SBDC, the company has expanded its client base, selling products worldwide, including Canada, England, Switzerland, Taiwan and China. International business is not something Miriam Lahlou, director of business for the company, anticipated they would secure from a Carbondale location. 

“To tell you the truth, for me, it is really neat that in our small town of Carbondale I am working with international people and having professional relationships with people overseas,” she said. 

The company’s river models simulate river processes, applicable to river science and conservation.  Applications include river geomorphology, biotechnical engineering, urban stream management, river ecosystem restoration and science education. 

The company makes three different models, of different lengths, and they are educational tools that can counteract poor urban planning, Lahlou said. The newest model, the Emflume, is the world’s first desktop flume system created for engineering education and research. Clients include educational institutions such as universities as well as government entities, fisheries, engineers, earth scientists and others involved in similar fields. 

Lahlou said the Small Business Development Center and its International Trade Center have been valuable assets to the company, particularly with exporting. Through them, the company learned about the Illinois State Trade and Export Promotion (ISTEP) program, which allowed Lahlou and other company employees to attend an international trade show in France to market their products. ISTEP provided logistical assistance along with partial travel expense reimbursement to further the program’s goal of enabling entrepreneurs to build relationships globally and secure international sales contracts. 

“After applying for the ISTEP program grant, we had some interest from China. That was very new to us and we were able to get advice about this new market at the SBDC,” Lahlou said. 

The SBDC also provided networking opportunities that allowed Lahlou to learn from other businesses involved in international exporting and marketing. The company will work with the SBDC/ITC in the future to evaluate its finances and learn more about international trade and trade conferences and she highly recommends any business interested in exporting do so as well. 

“I would suggest researching very well and using local resources,” Lahlou said. “We do have some great resources that sometimes we are not aware of, and the SBDC is one of them.” 

Gough and Lahlou found that starting a business and expanding to international trade are not without challenges. Finding reliable transportation for products is one of the difficulties, since the models are large and can be damaged by freight carriers. Preparing products for safe travel and dealing with customs can be difficult, but despite the struggles involved in exporting, Lahlou said it is satisfying to know that people around the world are benefitting from the river models. 

“It’s been really rewarding to know that our model has reached countries as far away as China, and that people there are benefitting and learning from it,” she said.  

The Illinois Small Business Development Center/International Trade Center, is funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and hosted by Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 

For more information about the SBDC or the numerous services it provides to new and growing businesses, contact Robyn Laur Russell at or 618/536-2424.