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How the Muskegon Innovation Hub is driving entrepreneurship & transforming the business landscape

From left, Thomas Hopper, Kevin Ricco and Valerie Byrnes.

As entrepreneurs increasingly turn to Muskegon, the business community is transforming and growing. Behind this change is a major player that's working to ensure residents with a dream of starting their own company are encouraged and supported: the Muskegon Innovation Hub.
Driving into Muskegon, it’s impossible not to notice the giant, colorful billboards emblazoned with: “Watch Muskegon” and “Watch Us Go.” Like any slogan, these phrases are, of course, a bit simplistic, but it does give a glimpse into a changing city. After its population decreased between 2000 and 2010, the number of people moving to the city is on the rise. As more entrepreneurs and business leaders with a love for all things local set up shop in Muskegon, the commercial community is transforming and growing.

Many people may be familiar with Grand Valley State University’s former Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC), a Muskegon-based facility that promoted research, education and business development in alternative and renewable energy technologies. In May 2016, MAREC underwent a rebranding and now provides a more well-rounded, holistic approach to supporting entrepreneurs in a variety of industries under the name of the Muskegon Innovation Hub.

Established by the city of Muskegon, Grand Valley State University, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the Muskegon Innovation Hub (often referred to as “the Hub”) has expanded its horizons from solely focusing on clean energy technology to now supporting businesses that fall under the incredibly wide umbrella of being innovative. The Hub focuses on three major components: business incubation, where emerging entrepreneurs receive support to lead successful companies; low-cost co-working space; and funding assistance for growing businesses. “Our goal is to be a key partner in the region’s economic development ecosystem, supporting startup businesses, entrepreneurs, and corporate innovation teams,” the Hub’s website states.

Kevin Ricco

Despite the name change and rebranding, the Hub has not completely eliminated its focus on supporting energy initiatives. “It hasn’t gone away. It just isn’t the sole core anymore,” says Business Incubator Manager Valerie Byrnes.

Muskegon Innovation Hub Director Kevin Ricco also emphasizes this point.

“We’re affiliated with the Muskegon Lakeshore Smart Zone, so we will always have a role with alternative energy,” Ricco says, referring to a venture between the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the city of Muskegon and GVSU that aims to promote and attract high tech businesses development in the area. In addition to alternative energy, the Hub now also services tech clients and manufacturing and lifestyle businesses. The main connection between all of their clients is their focus on innovation.

“If we could identify our ideal clients, they are innovative clients that are seeking to disrupt the marketplace and create a solution that is entering the marketplace in a unique fashion,” Byrnes says.

Valerie Byrnes

The Hub is filling a need within the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Muskegon. “We want to be responsive to what the community needs. As they evolve, our focus will naturally evolve to address those needs,” says Ricco.

Byrnes expands upon this.

“We saw a gap in education for early-stage businesses,” Byrnes says. “I think part of the need we fill is the challenging component. Challenging entrepreneurs [to think] outside of their own box of what’s possible. It’s helping to shift the culture and the mindset overall. That entrepreneurship is an option for employment. In some communities within our community or greater Muskegon, there are bigger problems. To look at problems and urban issues and to identify a for-profit solution -- I think we bring a different mindset to the table,” says Byrnes.

The Innovation Hub provides a variety of services to their clients and community at large. They provide: one-on-one coaching, a tenant program to serve clients maintaining space on-site, an affiliate program for clients located off-site, CoLaunch -- their collaborative workspace open to the public, and access to funding.

As an added benefit, the facility’s location helps set them apart from other incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces. “We are a natural attractor to our local community. So it just makes us convenient and accessible within our local market,” says Byrnes.

Tom Hopper, Associate Director for Business Development, adds that Muskegon has “a deep water port here. It’s a great place to live. More than that, we offer a very personalized approach to business incubation, to coaching, to CoLaunch. We are always trying to serve the individual needs of the clients directly rather than having a standard process.”

Tom Hopper

Since its relaunch, the Innovation Hub has had the opportunity to see businesses working together to support one another as well. “What’s fascinating to me to see is that our clients are working with each other,” says Byrnes. “It’s not just tech to tech; it’s tech to lifestyle. It’s a very natural evolution that’s taking place on its own. Our opportunity to grow is great.”

Through partnerships and collaborations with Start Garden, the Muskegon Angels, the Grand Rapids Inventors Network, the Muskegon Inventors Network, Downtown Muskegon NOW, and a host of other entrepreneurial support organizations, the Innovation Hub has been able to reach more than 1,000 individuals through its programming and 5x5 Nights, pitch competitions that give entrepreneurs the chance to win funding and other resources for their businesses. Through September 2016, the most recent data available, the Innovation Hub assisted more than 65 distinct companies, helped six companies expand and aided businesses through the intellectual property process, resulting in more than 31 new patents, copyrights or trademarks being issued.

According to the Hub’s website, their tenants and graduates include: Longer Days, providers of virtual assistance services; Smart Vision Lights, producers and manufacturers of LED lights; and Energy Partners LLC, a provider of solar power supplies.

Though the Innovation Hub has experienced growth and has been able to have an impact, they are not stopping now. “I would like to see us continue to build some better, stronger relationships within our communities, particularly some of our under-served communities within the area. We need to do a better job of going to them,” says Ricco.

Ricco also points to the Innovation Hub’s connection to Grand Valley State University, where they are housed. “We are part of Grand Valley. Finding ways for us to connect back to our academic mission as a university is very, very important to me and continuing to explore what that looks like. Whether that’s continuing to attract more student entrepreneurs, whether that’s spinning more technologies out of the university that become businesses, whether that’s bringing in students and faculty to help a client with a problem -- finding ways to circle back is very important to me. I don’t want to lose sight of that,” he states.

The Innovation Hub has several upcoming events for both entrepreneurs and the community, including its 5x5 Night, the 3-2-1 pitch event and a resource day for their tenants. Additionally, they will be launching “Marketing Mondays” on May 15, which will be an accelerated program focused on entrepreneurs the third Monday of each month.

Leandra Williams is the owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and co-owner of Gold Leaf Designs LLC. She has more than 12 years of experience in leadership, sales and marketing, and graphic design. Through these organizations, she assists businesses with creating strategies for growth and sustainability through: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management solutions and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several boards and committees. You can contact Leandra Williams by emailing her at leandra@stingrayadvisorygroup.com.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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