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How the business community is unlocking the potential of The Port of Muskegon

The Port of Muskegon is West Michigan’s largest, natural deepwater port, and according to a recent economic impact report, with proper development, marketing and promotion,  it has the potential to create 1,700 jobs and more than $280 million in annual economic activity that reaches throughout West Michigan.

That was the gist of Port Day, an event organized and hosted by the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission (WMSRDC),  the Muskegon County Port Advisory Committee and the West Michigan Prosperity Alliance (WMPA) with the intention to introduce the port’s potential to local and regional stakeholders and build a collaborative network in order to advance the vision of the port becoming a multi-modal regional logistics hub and capturing the economic value forecasted in the report.

“There are a lot of moving parts” before this vision can become a reality, says WMSRDC Executive Director Erin Kuhn, but she is very optimistic that the port has the potential to be a significant economic engine for West Michigan. “The greater community does not realize the assets around Muskegon Lake and the port,” Kuhn says. “We have access to shipping, an airport, rail and the highways.  And the commercial capacities are often underutilized.”

Kuhn notes the recent interest in the Port of Muskegon is directly related to the closing of the Consumers Energy plant in Muskegon. In order to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continue to dredge the channel, the tonnage of coal that was shipped for use by Consumers Energy would be need to be replaced. To address this, the local business community came together and began asking questions: How do they diversify? How do they overcome this issue?

The answer quickly became evident: cooperation. Diversifying the use of the port would require the coordination of the private sector and local, regional, state, and federal governments.

When the WMPA (an organization that was formed in January 2014 as part of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Regional Prosperity Initiative) issued a call for projects in October 2014, a proposal was created by local leaders, and the  Port of Muskegon was selected as the number one regional project.

With this recognition, the project was moved from a local level to a regional one, and The West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission took a lead role in securing state and federal grants and is developing a plan to advance the port as a regional logistics hub.

For more information about this initiative please visit http://wmsrdc.org/port-day.

The West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission is a planning and development agency serving 120 local governments from Lake, Mason, Muskegon, Newaygo and Oceana Counties. The Commission works to foster regional development in West Michigan through various services and programs.
 
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Meet Little Lucy's and Brighton Graye's: The newest additions to Plainfield's burgeoning food scene

There are many Grand Rapids neighborhoods undergoing extreme makeovers. Ever-looming cranes and bulldozers dot massive construction projects. But there is also quieter redevelopment going on in the city, where old buildings are being repurposed into something new. 

Case in point: the Creston/Cheshire neighborhood.

Little Lucy’s Cafe and Brighton Graye’s Bistro are a two-restaurant concept housed in the former D’Amico Food Market on North Plainfield.

Larry Zeiser, partner at L&B Portfolio (owners of Graydon's Crossing, Logan's Alley and Derby Station), is one of two owners of the restaurants and sees the recent addition as being a complimentary addition to the rapidly developing food scene on Plainfield.

Although the restaurants share the same building, each one has a separate entrance, its own kitchen and its own identity.

Little Lucy’s, named after Zeiser’s daughter, opened in late May and has a focus on breakfast, lunch, coffee, deli options, and bakery items. It is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week. The bakery and deli are open most days from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. It offers seating for 60 inside and  28 outside at a dedicated open air patio. A complete menu can be found on the Little Lucy’s website at www.littlelucyscafe.com.
 
Brighton Graye’s Bistro just debuted in late June. Brighton Graye’s is named after L&B Portfolio partner Brian Giampapa’s son. It’s a bit more upscale and brings the feel of urban dining to the Creston neighborhood, with an emphasis on modern American cuisine. Brighton Graye’s offers small and large plates made primarily with locally-grown ingredients that changes on a daily basis.
 
Another focus of Graye’s will be its craft cocktail selection. Brighton Graye’s offers seating for 100 people inside, including 14 at its bar and capacity for 36 at its outdoor open-air patio on the south side of the building. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Thursday from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m.and Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. until midnight, with an after-dinner happy hour starting at 9 p.m. each night.

Both partners are residents of Grand Rapids’ northeast side, and Zeiser describes himself as a “big-believer in a great neighborhood.”  He says he has worked with the neighborhood association for more than five years and said the availability of the specific property was the catalyst for the development. “The key for me was D’Amico’s being vacant. It’s a natural connector between Creston and Cheshire,” Zeiser says, adding that the development of the neighborhoods is more akin to Cherry Street than the recent work being done on the westside.  “We are bringing something different to the neighborhood. We don’t have burgers but other places have them,” he says.

So, for those of you unfamiliar with the food scene on Plainfield Avenue on the  northeast side, here is a quick guide. Starting just north of Leonard you have the Choo-Choo Grill (burger, fries, shakes) and Graydon’s Crossing (Indian/English food, craft beers). Going north there is The Rez (pizza, Cajun, beer, pub food), the soon-to-be-opened Creston Brewery and continuing up the road you have Little Lucy’s and Brighton Grayes, Frosty Boy (an iconic ice cream stop), La Huasteca (traditional Mexican), Cheshire Grill (classic diner), and Fat Boy’s (burger and fries). For the DIY crowd, there is the local grocery store Kingma’s, which features fresh produce, a wide selection of beer and wine, groceries, and one of the finest full service meat markets in the city.

Check it out.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Business is booming at JR Automation: Company expands, adds jobs

Bryan Jones, CEO of JR Automation Technologies,  sums it up succinctly: “We work in cool industries on cool projects. It is unlike what anyone is doing in the world.”

The Holland-based JR Automation Technologies is a global leader in custom automation solutions for a variety of industries, including automotive, aerospace, medical device, pharmaceutical, food processing, construction, and more. The company which was founded in 1980, has been on a high growth trajectory since 2009 and has recently announced their intention to expand operations in Holland by investing $5.6 million, which will  create 250 new jobs in the area over the course of the project.

Jones says an improving economy, advances in technology and JR Automation’s culture and team environment have played key roles in the firm’s growth. “An expanding economy certainly has helped our business, but our success is much bigger than that,” he says. “Changing and improving technology is making it possible to do more. Process developments are changing the way that we build cars, airplanes, and any number of everyday products.  All of these developments generally need intelligent, intuitive systems to be viable.”

The new jobs that are being created through their recent expansion will be filled by both new graduates and seasoned veterans. “We are looking to hire individuals ranging in experience: new college grads to seasoned professionals in a variety of disciplines and skill sets. Mechanical, electrical and process engineers, controls engineers, software engineers, project managers, machine builders, machinist, fabricators, service technicians. JR is a very technically diverse team, and we will continue to add in all areas,” says Jones.

Despite the competition for this type of talent, Jones is very optimistic that his company offers an interesting opportunities for job seekers. “JR is unique in that we bring so many different talent sets together in a respectful, enabling work environment for the purpose of solving problems and building solutions that are bigger than what any one discipline or talent set could ever accomplish on their own,” he says. “We get to see the results of our efforts on a daily basis in the construction and run-off of systems that can be hundreds of feet long and cost multiple millions of dollars.”

Jones says  the technology being developed and used is industry leading. “It’s cool stuff,” he says. “We build things that move and make and manufacture and that are unlike anything else in the world. What could be more fun than that to someone who gets into building things and making things work? And while all that is happening, there is a true team atmosphere supporting one another and making the work days enjoyable.”

Several economic development organizations have played a role in JR Automation’s recent expansion, including Lakeshore Advantage, Holland Charter Township and the MEDC.
 
Those interested in employment at JR Automation should visit http://www.jrauto.com/careers.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Cooking up dreams: Small business owners find space to flourish at Downtown Market incubator kitchen

As physicians, Monica Randles and Andrew Maternowski have a deep understanding of what it means to be healthy  — and the critical role food plays in your well-being. Longtime locavores who would regularly support area farms, the couple realized, after they and their two children became vegetarians, that while they could find plenty of healthy, West Michigan-grown produce, they couldn’t find the same for locally made substitute meats.

“We started looking at alternative meat options for vegetarian/vegan eating, and it became obvious to us there weren’t really super healthy options,” Randles says. “There were a lot of chemicals or processed products. We wanted to see what we could make for ourselves that are healthy and delicious, and we ended up making vegan sausages using walnuts, hazelnuts, brown rice, and quinoa. Any sausage is really a vehicle for seasoning, so we could have a hot Italian sausage, a breakfast sausage, which are super healthy and very flavorful.”

The couple started working on their recipe around 2010, and in July 2014 they founded Nutcase Vegan Meats, at which time they knew they needed a commercial kitchen to continue making their line of sausages. A friend recommended connecting with the Downtown Market’s incubator kitchen, which provides space, cooking and packaging equipment, and business development assistance for food start-ups and entrepreneurs.

“They really helped us,” Randles says of the kitchen, which now houses 21 businesses, ranging from Bloom Ferments, which makes kombucha drinks, and coffee company Prospectors Cold Brew to D’Arts Donuts and soul food spot Southern Smoke. “They’ve been really critical with education and mentoring for the business. We didn’t know what to do in terms of hiring employees or looking for additional staff and support and licensing. They’ve been a big source of information.”

It’s those kind of reviews that Whitney Lubbers, who manages the incubator kitchen, is thrilled to hear. After all, she says, in a city awash with an entrepreneurial spirit, it’s crucial that small businesses owners with limited funds are able to access space to flourish.

“A place like this is so important,” Lubbers says as she sits in her office overlooking the kitchen, an expansive sea of stainless steel equipment that’s used practically around the clock by businesses for everything from frying donuts to slapping labels on bottles. “If they’re not successful here, in the kitchen, they’re not losing everything they have" because they don’t have to invest in an often incredibly expensive brick and mortar site.

One of the few incubator kitchens in West Michigan, the space at the Downtown Market allows businesses to work with Lubbers to make sure they have a viable business plan, and they have immediate access to the Michigan Small Business Development Center, which helps owners on a range of topics, including the county and state licensing processes.

“They’ll really walk you through the process; you can take the ServSafe course so you understand food handling and regulation,” says Randles, whose business now sells their vegan sausages at about a dozen places throughout the state, including at spots like Kingma’s Market, Nourish Organic Market, and Horrocks Market in Grand Rapids. “The incubator kitchen helps you understand the process well prior to having a state inspection. We can’t say enough good things about the incubator kitchen; we wouldn’t be where we are now without them.”

Many of those who go to the incubator kitchen do so based on recommendations, as Randles did, and the space has grown from housing six businesses when the Downtown Market first opened in the summer of 2013 to the current 21 businesses. For Lubbers, that’s indicative of  a need for shared commercial space for entrepreneurs. The kitchen has five distinct areas: pastry, packaging, catering, production, and prep, and the hourly rates to use these spaces vary on a tiered system, depending on what equipment one needs to access and financial need (there are three choices: market rate, support rate and scholarship rate). Plus, the market offers owners access during “non-peak hours” (10pm-6am), which also makes the price drop.

“It was important to us to offer this as soon as the Market opened, to have something that would support small businesses in the city,” Lubbers says. “We saw a need to foster this entrepreneurship; we’re able to accommodate a lot here.”

Of the businesses that have worked out of the kitchen, one, Cultured Love, has “graduated,” or grown out of the space, and two others, Bloom Ferments and Prospectors, are soon poised to leave. While at the incubator kitchen, Prospectors inked a deal with Meijer that places their product in more than 200 stores throughout Michigan and the Midwest.

Sydney Dennison, who runs Masen James Bakery with her mother, Clarice Dennison, and works out of the incubator kitchen, says the communal space has given them a chance to live out a dream.

“My mom has always had a passion for baking,” Dennison says. “For her whole life, people would say, ‘Oh, you won’t make any money that way,’ and so she went and got her Master’s degree in business leadership and works at a hospital now. But every since I was young, I knew she had a talent for baking, and I wanted her to do what she loves. You only have one life; you may as well do what you want. So, I said, ‘Show me how to bake; show me how to do this.”

Dennison notes that it’s not just having the space itself that helps, but that owners have a chance to share words of wisdom with other entrepreneurs.

“It’s a great way to connect,” she says. “We’re sharing the kitchen with a ton of different businesses, and people do collaborations with other businesses all the time. We’ve done things with Prospectors. We feed off of each other; we give each other great exposure.”

For more information about the incubator kitchen, visit its website here.

Franks, sausage and specialty meats producer expected to invest $35 million in expansion

Kent Quality Foods, a West Michigan maker of franks, sausages and specialty meats for commercial customers, has announced the construction of a food processing facility in Jamestown  Charter Township. The company plans to invest nearly $35 million dollars, creating 140 jobs over three years.

“The project was a huge win.” says Emily Staley, director of marketing and communications for Lakeshore Advantage, a non-profit that aims to drive economic growth in West Michigan. “They looked all over the region and they chose us.” Staley says the Lakeshore Advantage team worked  for nearly nine months on this location process, helping to coordinate nearly 15 local and state organizations in winning this expansion for Jamestown Charter Township.

Staley says the jobs that are being created are “really good jobs,” including management positions and production supervision. She also notes the multiple benefits of the new facility to the region, including spin-off jobs with suppliers and construction.

According to Staley, key factors in the decision to build the plant in the local township were the experienced and educated workforce, the region’s expertise in food production and the teamwork between the private and public sectors organizations that are essential for a project of this complexity and size to be successful.

Kent Quality Foods was founded in 1967. Family owned and operated for three generations, Kent makes high quality sausages and franks for customers from hot dog stands to national restaurant chains, food service companies, broad line distributors, and the further processing industry. You can learn more at www.kqf.com.

Lakeshore Advantage is a non-profit organization that catalyzes resources to drive economic growth in West Michigan.  You can learn more here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 
 

Keeping it local: Harmony Brewing Company and Green Wagon Farm launch partnership

Harmony Brewing Company is a hip neighborhood brewpub in Eastown that also makes some of the most unique and delicious pizza in the city.

Green Wagon Farm is a small-scale vegetable farm located in Ada, Michigan, growing 11 acres of diverse vegetables and herbs.

Now, the two businesses will be working hand-in-hand to grow both organizations and add a new level of freshness to the local food scene.

Harmony will be sourcing a custom mix of leafy greens, romaine lettuce, basil, spinach, and arugula, along with other in-season produce from Green Wagon.  Doug Nowiski, head chef at Harmony says the new partnership goes beyond the typical supply chain relationship. “For me, this is about working on a more direct relationship between farmer and restaurant. I want to go beyond the typical supplier relationship,” he says.

For example, Nowiski says that Harmony staff will have the opportunity to meet with the farmers and work on the farm to learn more about the growing process. He says this experience is a natural continuation of providing more information to the consumer about where the food comes from. 

Nowiski says the goal is to source 100 percent of leafy greens from Green Wagon Farm, with a plan to expand into other products as the partnership matures and they learn from the first year of operations. Nowiski says that initially that Green Wagon Farm will be working only with Harmony in Eastown but that they will also pursue this type of relationship for their popular Westside venue, Harmony Hall.

Besides growing products for Harmony, Green Wagon Farms serves other customers and currently has CSA shares available for individuals looking to connect directly with the farm and receive weekly fresh produce during the summer season. For more information please visit: www.greenwagonfarm.com/what-is-a-csa/.

You can check out Harmony Brewing's menu and hours and here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

Reduce, reuse, recycle (and repeat): Study spells out environmental opportunities in West Michigan

When it comes to recycling, West Michigan — and Grand Rapids in particular — are outshining other regions of the state, but there’s still much that needs to be done here, according to a new study.
 
The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and Grand Valley State University released a study last week (which you can download here) that characterized the economic and environmental opportunities available through recycling, composting and other waste diversion strategies.

According to the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, the report, titled Economic Impact Potential and Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in Michigan, estimates the total material value of municipal solid waste disposed in Michigan landfills and incinerators at as much as $368 million per year. If all material of value was recovered and sold to the market, it would have an estimated total economic impact of up to $399 million per year, and and employment impact of up 2,619 jobs.

Staggering numbers

Daniel Schoonmaker, director of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, provides some insight into how, and why, individuals, the public sector and the private sector in West Michigan are actively engaging in recycling efforts.

Rapid Growth: What can individuals do to help increase the recycling rate?

Daniel Schoonmaker: To a certain extent it depends on where you are. You can do a lot more in West Michigan, especially Grand Rapids, than you can in many other parts of the state.

To start, the standard advice of reduce, reuse, recycle applies. An estimated 40 percent of garbage in West Michigan is easily recyclable most anywhere with curbside service. We can have a substantial impact on the recycling rate just by taking advantage of the available infrastructure.

In Grand Rapids, an individual can divert up to 84 percent of their waste with some additional effort, a lot of it routine tasks such as donating clothes and furniture or recycling electronics and hazardous waste. Food waste and compostable paper (eg: napkins, pizza boxes) are arguably the only challenging categories, due to the extra effort and expense of composting. Organicycle is really a local treasure with the curbside compost service it offers in Grand Rapids. I doubt people realize how unique that service is in Michigan.

Obviously, purchasing behavior and use can have a significant impact. The majority of garbage are limited-use consumables: nondurable goods, packaging and food waste. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Plus, seek out products that use recycled and recyclable material.

RG: What are the opportunities for the public sector to help increase the recycling rate? What is not being done now?

DS: It's hard to answer this as it's fairly hyper local. The scenario is a little different in every municipality, and what works swimmingly in one community might be impractical in another.
But if there is a universal need for the public sector, it is to prioritize this as a goal.

One of the bigger takeaways from our study is that under current conditions the economic case is limited to a handful of high-value materials, even when you factor in indirect costs such as environmental impact. The public sector needs to have a role in promoting waste diversion as a public good and to work with the private sector to make it more viable. Grand Rapids is a good example of this, as Kent County Department of Public Works has set the pace for the region with its recycling center and educational programs.

Put another way, the public sector needs to set a good example in policy and practice. If nothing else, having recycling available in public buildings helps to normalize the activity.

Through the governor's recycling initiative, the state is putting a good deal of effort into market development and supportive public policy, which have generated a lot of publicity and interest. Electronic waste and organics are conspicuous opportunities on that scale.

RG: What about the private sector? Where do you see opportunities? Are there business opportunities? Or is it just good citizenship?

DS: To a degree, but at the base level it is being a good corporate citizen and employer.  It's positive branding for customers and workers. Regardless of what industry you're in, the absence of recycling will be noted. I'm not aware of anyone that has changed jobs due to a lack of recycling, but I know employees can find a lack of it off-putting, even backward.

The quickest path to an increased recycling rate is for more companies to start recycling. The lowest hanging fruit is to increase the number of businesses recycling their cardboard boxes. It's plentiful, valuable and easy to recycle. All you have to do is find a spot for a dumpster or baler.

In sufficient quantities, recycling will pay for itself through scrap sales and reduced waste fees. Going into this study, the expectation was that any business that could derive revenue from its waste was already doing so, but that's clearly not the case.

From a service standpoint, there are definitely opportunities for entrepreneurs, and we've seen a number of those in Rapid Growth. Folks like Organicycle, New Soil, Spurt, My Green Michigan, and Cocoa have helped create a commercial compost industry. Greener Grads, Rapid Group, Goodwill, ATR, and Valley City Electronic Recycling are all doing really cool things in their niches.

Our research looked at the economic value of disposed material in the current situation. We need to start looking at waste as a resource, and this is a step toward that.  An estimated 42 percent of the material has market value if we were to sell it through existing channels. This would be a local source for raw material if we were to shift to a more circular economy. Developing that further, there are limitless opportunities for alternatives that would retain greater value across the lifecycle.

It's a similar discussion to what we're seeing with energy right now.  There is a lot of value to be found from alternatives and efficiency.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs New Editor
 

Caffeine City: Madcap CEO's first place prize showcases coffee's rising star in Grand Rapids

Madcap Coffee’s CEO, Trevor Corlett, took first place in the Eastern Conference Barista Competition two weeks ago. 
 
With the highest score in the country, Corlett is now qualified to continue on to the United States Barista Championship (USBC) semi-finals on April 14-17 in Atlanta, Ga.
 
Big deal, right? Well, yes, it is.
 
The specialty coffee industry is big business, and, arguably, it is as important to building the Grand Rapids brand as is the craft beer scene. The city now features dozens of independent specialty coffee shops where business and community intersect.
 
Corlett says these events are where the top 1 percent of coffee producers and processors in the country have a stage to showcase their talents and dedication to being the best of the best.
 
"This competition is an arena within the specialty coffee market where you find yourself at an event where everyone is very passionate about the product,” he explains.
 
Success in the competition says as much about the company where a barista works as it does the specific skills of the barista.  This was Corlett's ninth time in the this competition but his first time landing the top honor.
 
"These competitions are important for the company,” he says. “It challenges you to work on skills. We believe working in coffee can be a lifelong career. It's great exposure and makes you better at your day-to-day job."
 
Ryan Wojton, Madcap’s café manager, finished ninth place in the Eastern Conference and qualified to compete in the United States Brewer’s Cup Championship, which highlights the art of manual coffee brewing. Corlett says another team member also participated but did not qualify for the next stage.
 
Each of Corlett's drinks highlighted Amparo Botina’s coffee from the Narino Region in Southwest Colombia. Her coffee was featured in Madcap’s Colombia Tasting Series, and this is Madcap’s first year buying coffee from Amparo.
 
Corlett's Signature Drink: “Almost Perfect”
  • Glass smoked with cinnamon and cherry bitters
  • 1ml of sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 shot of espresso made with Amparo Botina’s coffee
  • 1ml of small batch grenadine
  • Stirred well, garnished with a freeze-dried strawberry, and served in a  2.5oz coupe glass
For more information about the competition, you can visit the site here.  For more information about Madcap, you can visit their site here.
 
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

The Midwest Tech Mentoring Program building bridges byte by byte

It was bitter cold outside when Jonathan Jelks and Alvin Hill IV officially launched The Midwest Tech Mentoring Program at the Grand Rapids Art Museum on Feb. 11.
 
But, inside, it was 'en fuego.’ 
 
The kick-off was on fire with optimism, ideas and plans to prepare more young men and women for careers in technology.
 
The venue was packed. The audience was diverse: parents, students; educators; tech, business and nonprofit professionals; entrepreneurs; and representatives from local government. Young and old.  They all gathered to learn more about an initiative that promises to connect inner city youth of color to the career opportunities within the knowledge and creative economies.
 
Jelks introduced a variety of speakers, including Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, all of whom were enthusiastic supporters of the program.
 
"Our mission is to educate, engage and to expose inner city youth to the world of technology and the opportunities available in the tech industry in Grand Rapids,” he says.
 
Jelks envisions a program that features hands-on learning (software development, coding, program management and design) and mentorship with local tech professionals.
 
"We want to teach kids about about the benefits of becoming an IT professional and/or tech entrepreneur,” Jelks explains. “We also want kids and parents alike to walk away with a thorough understanding of what it will take from an education standpoint to be able to take advantage of the creative economy."
 
There is still much work to be done, but Jelks and Hill plan to launch the formal program in May 2016.
 
"We will be fundraising to get the equipment needed to run our program and to hire our staff,” Jelks says. “We are recruiting mentors from Grand Rapid's tech community. We will be going out to Silicon Valley in March to meet with different tech companies to learn about the ‘Diversity in IT’ programs that are working and receiving support."
 
To learn more about the program, including contact information and how to get involved, you can follow their Facebook event page here.
 
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Photos by Tricia Leigh Jackson / Start Garden

Simms Electronics: Changing the world, one project at a time

Simms Electronics is a great example of a small company working on big ideas that turn into very smart products. And there is a very good chance you never of heard of them.

Simms Electronics is located at 3230 Broadmoor Ave. The firm designs and manufactures sophisticated IoT electronics that serve a wide variety of commercial products in the industrial sector.

IoT, which is the abbreviation for Internet of Things, refers to smart products that are connected to the internet.  Examples in the consumer market are home appliances and light fixtures that are connected and controlled by smart phones. In the industrial setting these products could include sensors for carbon monoxide and monitors to help control energy consumption in large commercial settings.

Matt Simms, the president of the five-person engineering firm, says the company keeps a low profile and is not able to share details about many of their projects, but he is committed to attracting and retaining software design talent to Grand Rapids. Simms says the IoT market is really growing and shows no signs of slowing down.
 
"We have several projects in the pipeline and will shortly be announcing new job openings,” he says.

Working with a  small company is a great opportunity for an engineer or software developer that values job variety, Simms notes.
 
"We are always working on different opportunities, with different products, in different markets and different industries,” he says. “You are not stuck working on one product for several years. It is great experience."

To learn more about Simms Electronics, including job opportunities, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

GVSU computer science students develop app to keep Millennials in West Michigan

This wasn't your parents’ class project.

Thanks to a  partnership between the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Valley State University (GVSU), a team of senior students developed an app that is designed to attract and retain college graduate Millennials here in Grand Rapids.

The student team consisted of Ryan Banaszak, Brent Bouwkamp, Chris DeNeef, Trent Keusch and Cameron Lewis. Together they developed the free app, called YGR, that features a host of Grand Rapids-based companies, stores, restaurants, transportation, and entertainment options that collectively showcase the community.  The capstone project was developed under the direction of GVSU Professor David Lange, School of Computing and Information Systems.

The app provides the user with a wide range of reasons why someone should consider Grand Rapids as a place to build a career. Community assets are featured within six subsets which include: entertainment, community, jobs, living in Grand Rapids, networking, and government.  

Lange says this class project is consistent with his class assignments and his teaching philosophy, where students work on real-life projects.
 
"Students get a lot out of these projects,” he says. “It's a bridge between the classroom and the real world."
 
He notes the classroom can help refine technical skills, but that is only part of being a successful software developer.
 
"These projects feature real world scenarios,” he explains. “Plans always change. They need to learn how to adapt.”

This particular project began with a class initiated by former Mayor George Heartwell to present recommendations for how the City could better attract and retain college graduates — a class that followed the release of a  2013 study by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce which reported Michigan was losing a significant number of its younger residents to other states following college graduation. The students presented the City Commission with 10 recommendations, including the development of a new smartphone application.

Besides the market research and app development, the students had to complete the process to make the free YGR app, which is available in the Android Play Store and the Apple Store.

Writer: John Rumery, Jobs and Innovation Editor
 

Meredith Bronk on work-life balance, career success and happiness

How can a person who runs a $160-million-dollar business, with almost 200 employees and offices in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis and London, England, maintain any semblance of work-life balance?

It's pretty simple. It starts with purposefully making time to be happy.

Meredith Bronk, CEO and president of OST, was recently recognized as one of the top 50 women entrepreneurs in America by Inc. Earlier, OST made the Inc. 5000 list for the 9th consecutive year, highlighting the company's 83 new hires and three-year average growth rate of 57 percent.

Besides her responsibilities and success at OST, Bronk is also very involved in the community, serving as a board member of United Bank and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. She is a committed mentor to other business professionals and is a wife and mother to three active girls, ages 15, 13 and 11.   

So with schedule like that, how do you maintain any semblance of work-life balance?

Bronk credits her commitment to the "happiness challenge" to achieving balance in her life. She says she was introduced to the program while in the Executive MBA program at Notre Dame, and now makes the five tenets of the challenge part of her daily and weekly routine. "The 'happiness challenge' has five habits; regular exercise, meditation, journaling, daily acts of gratitude and random acts of kindness, she explains.

Bronk recommends these five habits for anyone needing a system to find balance in their lives. She acknowledges that it does take time and discipline to make these part of your daily and weekly routines, but the key is to make a commitment. "To get started, you take and practice what you can" and over time there will be a transformational effect, helping you become "the best version of yourself" both at work and at home.

To learn more about OST you can visit their site here. You can also read about their recent recognition by Inc. here and here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

SalesPad growing, "always in hiring mode"

SalesPad might be one of the fastest growing, most innovative West Michigan software companies you've never heard of before. Which, according to Jeremy Boogaart, general manager, used to be okay with them but isn't so much anymore.

With continued projected growth and ongoing hiring needs in a very competitive market, Boogaart says it is time to share their story to a broader audience. "We used to fly under the radar but after ramping up the hiring process and adding about 49 people in the past year, we decided it was time for people to know more about us," he says.

SalesPad makes innovative business software. The company has a suite of 13 products for a wide variety of enterprise level, business management activities. Boogaart says the company was founded by Matt Williams in 2004 and the firm now has 120 employees and is  "always in hiring mode."

"We never stop hiring", he says. "We always runs ads and we currently have open jobs in sales, support, and development." Boogaart describes the SalesPad culture as "collaborative" and says it is quite different than many development and consulting development shops.  

"We are a full-time software development shop with our own products. We focus on team work. We provide a lot of training, opportunities for ongoing learning and group development, all in an open office environment. Plus, we have fun." He says with their commitment to training, it is a great company for new college graduates,

Besides adding to the local economy, SalesPad is also helping to showcase Grand Rapids to people from around the country. The firm recently hosted a three-day conference in downtown Grand Rapids, bringing in around 250 customers, the majority of whom were from outside of West Michigan. "We had to block about 800 nights at hotels. We had brewery tours, golfing and ate at various restaurants throughout the city," he says. "Many people attending did not know what to expect in Grand Rapids. They were surprised with the cool vibe." This was the second year for the conference and the firm is already planning for 2016.

To learn more about SalesPad, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor.

Rebranding complete, Freshwater Digital is getting innovative

2015 has been good for Freshwater Digital. Very good.

The five-year-old digital signage and media production firm has been riding a significant growth wave in the past year and shows no sign of slowing down.

Just in the last several months, the firm has moved into a new office and warehouse space (almost doubling its previous footprint) to occupy 25,000 sq. feet, hired eight new people (now a total headcount of 14), released its own proprietary software, acquired and integrated a digital gaming company, and finished a complete rebranding.
 
And to think: less than four years ago, the founders of the company were working out of their homes.

Jon Dodge, EVP of business development, says the growth is a result of a blend of their core business expansion, a great team and new opportunities: "We've had fantastic growth in last two years. We have a very talented team and we recently added a vice president of product development."

Dodge describes Freshwater's core business as retail digital signage, but he says the firm is always looking for innovative ways to expand. "We are moving beyond just content on a screen. We now have different platforms to provide better communication with the consumer," he says.  

Dodge points to the firm's recent acquisition of the digital gaming company, "Extreme Ring Swing", (extremeringswing.com) as an example of moving beyond traditional digital signage to create a better customer experience. Dodge says that this product is a creative and engaging way to help their clients promote products and also increase sales by enticing customers to spend more time in an establishment.

With the growth and commitment to new product development, the firm just completed a complete rebranding including a name change (Freshwater Digital Media Partners to Freshwater Digital) and a revamped logo and website. The firm is planning an open house in early November to showcase its new location and its production and product development labs.

To learn more about Freshwater Digital you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Fuchsia Design builds a foundation for growth with national certification

Autumn Fuchs has many reasons to celebrate the first anniversary of her residential interior design firm, Fuchsia Design. Besides successfully building a strong client base in year one, Fuchs also joined a very elite club when she became one of only a few residential designers to become NCIDQ certified (National Council for Interior Design Qualification).

The NCIDQ certification process is a three-day exam consisting of two days of multiple choice and a 10-hour-long drafting exam. It tests on things like mechanical systems, electrical, accessible and sustainable design, codes, and building practices. Fuchs says that NCIDQ is not a requirement for interior designers, but she wanted to set the bar very high for herself and differentiate her business from the competition. "For me, it is important as a interior designer to have the highest level of certification in the  industry," she says. "It really sets me apart from other design firms."

Fuchsia Design specializes in residential projects and targets both new home and deep renovation ("taking homes down to studs" says Fuchs). She says her typical clients are individuals who are excited about the entire design process and have a strong vision for what they want to accomplish. "My clients value design and are excited about their home. They know what they like and enjoy collaboration."
 
Besides building Fuchsia Design, Fuchs also facilitates a networking community for designers, West Michigan Interior Designers, which has grown to over 150 members to date.  "I always believe the interior design industry can achieve more when we work together" she says.

In the very near future, Fuchs anticipates taking her business to the next level when she hopes to add 5-10 designers to her team.

To learn more about Fuchsia Design, you can visit their website here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
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