Beyond the Mitten: West Michigan companies making waves around the globe

When it comes to products changing the state, country and world, West Michigan should not be overlooked. This area is a hub for an incredibly diverse group of companies that have their sights set on success, and their efforts are making the globe more environmentally friendly, a better place for those battling mental health issues, increasingly delicious, and an all-around more interesting place to be.
When it comes to products changing the state, country and world, West Michigan should not be overlooked. This area is a hub for an incredibly diverse group of companies that have their sights set on success, and their efforts are making the globe more environmentally friendly, a better place for those battling mental health issues, increasingly delicious, and an all-around more interesting place to be. Some companies grew out of an idea, a sketch on a cocktail napkin or a simple observation at a construction site right here in West Michigan. Others relocated here because of our manufacturing legacy or progressive mindset and openness to new ideas. Some are fledgling firms that have the potential to change the way we think about sustainable production. Others have called Grand Rapids home for years; they are mainstays in West Michigan, and because of their community outreach and evolutionary practices, success has become a reality. Regardless of their backstories, the companies highlighted below are making waves not only in Michigan, but on the national and international front as well.

Terra Trike: Riding in healthy, and environmentally friendly, style

Recumbent triking is the fastest growing niche in the biking industry. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s time to change that. Terra Trike is the largest manufacturer of trikes — think reclining tricycles for adults (and children) — worldwide, selling more than all their competitors combined...and they are located in Grand Rapids. In 1996 two old buddies met up at a Christmas party, where Jack Wiswell showed Jack Oom a bike idea he had sketched out on a cocktail napkin — and Terra Trike was born.

Jeff Yonker, Director of Marketing for Terra Trike, describes the experience riding the recumbent trike. “Think about a regular bike and how that feels on your body after 10 miles,” says Yonker. “Now imagine sitting on a beach chair all day. With our bikes you can kick back and relax; it’s easier to ride farther and get more exercise.” He also describes riding a Terra Trike as an increasingly social experience. He explains that on a normal bike your field of focus is centered around your front tire; on a trike your focus is more forward facing. As a result, there are more things you notice; you can pay attention to your surroundings. Since the focus isn’t on balancing, you can instead enjoy time with the people you are riding with. This form of biking is for everyone: young and old, disabled or impaired; anyone can jump on a trike and become part of the exercise solution in West Michigan.

With 225 Terra Trike dealers internationally, this company has experienced 30 to 40 percent annual growth over the last six years. Certainly the international leader in trike manufacturing, Terra considers building community just as important as creating trikes and recently launched a new community website called “The theory is the more you can get people to ride in a group, the more small communities we can build, the more our niche will grow and awareness can be spread naturally,” says Yonker. This new group is not brand specific and is instead all about community support and growth. Within one month of its launch, the site has about 850-plus users.

With six trike models to choose from, Terra Trike is proud to manufacture a product that doesn’t create air, noise, or sight pollution and has called Grand Rapids its home for the last 20 years and counting.

MOVE Systems: Mobile food and urban energy solutions for the future

Mobile food vendors have gotten a bad rap in the past. Frequently known for being noisy, awkwardly large, and pollutive, these trucks, while serving good food, have been  frustrating to those who like the product but not the venue. However, these complaints may go by the wayside if Move Systems has anything to do with it. Grand Rapids local James Meeks, President and CEO of Move Systems, has developed a high-tech, energy saving solution that has the potential to change the face of mobile food and urban energy use in the very near future.

Move Systems offers a dual solution program to mobile food. First, they’ve developed an alternative to food carts of the past called an MRV100z. This 21st century vehicle includes green technology, a modular kitchen with refrigeration, and enhanced safety features making it one of the most environmentally food carts around. “Computers are installed in each of the vendor carts so Move Systems can tell where they are at any time, we will be able to check the refrigeration temperature remotely, identify any safety issues, and even track sales with a click of the button,” says Meeks. The corporate offices are located in West Michigan with much of the manufacturing taking place in Walker. “I like the feel of Grand Rapids and wanted to be part of the burgeoning entrepreneurial community here,” says Meeks.

Secondly, Move Systems has developed the Simply Grid charging pedestal, a curbside charging station and alternative to noisy, pollutive generators normally used by food vendors or any large vehicle that’s idling. This charging pedestal has become so popular that the New York City Fire Department is interested in connecting their ambulances to the power grid as well. “Normally these EMT vehicles idle their engines throughout the city just in case there’s an emergency, one hour of idling is like a full tank of diesel gas, that’s bad for everyone,” says Meeks. Move Systems has developed a pedestal with a retractable, tamper proof cable and key fob that would enable ambulances and other large vehicles to easily plug in and withdraw from the power source quickly and efficiently while significantly reducing emissions.

Their solar, natural gas, and battery powered electrical system, designed with mobile food vending in mind, reduces generator noise by half and decreases climate change emissions by two-thirds. While much of the engineering, design, and manufacturing has taken place in Walker, MOVE's current market for deployment lies in New York City. They have roughly three dozen MRVs being leased in NYC currently with a goal of increasing their fleet to 100 by 2017. “Grand Rapids is our base to evaluate national expansion from,” says Meeks, “we would love to see our mobile food solutions out in the streets of West Michigan as well in the near future.”

Founders Brewing: Beer for the world, but brewed for us

Since 1997 Founders has been one of the most popular watering holes in West Michigan, bringing the citizens of Grand Rapids handcrafted brews and good eats  — but it hasn’t stopped there. On the cusp of becoming a top 10 craft brewer in the U.S., Founders is now available in 38 states and is consistently ranked as one of the top brewers in the world.

Founders has now set its sights on becoming a mainstay in the international beer scene as well. The Grand Rapids mainstay’s flavorful ales are now available in 23 countries, and there is still room to grow. “We’ve been seeing a lot of markets around the world that are underserved,” says Brian May, Vice President of International Business at Founders. "Many of the craft beers so loved in the U.S. haven’t made it yet internationally, but there is a global macro trend towards high quality food and drink, and we are getting very little resistance to our beer, regardless of country or region. We want to be a leader in the craft brewing industry and bring these new flavors to the world.”

May explained Founders’ global concept as always putting their best foot forward and adapting their business practices to meet the needs of differing international communities, while maintaining their high standards of distribution and production. “We are creating a global family,” says May. “We decide who the best distribution partners are for us in each community and work hard to develop relationships and make key advocates in each market who can help spread the word about craft beer." Founders began experimenting internationally in 2012 in the UK and Denmark. Then in 2013 they expanded to Australia and a few other markets in Europe. “We weren't really sure what to expect but wanted to learn how it worked and see what consumers thought of our beer,” says May, “regardless of the country, people seem to like Founders and we saw a huge opportunity to take our international business to the next level.”

With much of their international growth taking place in Europe, there are still huge and relatively untapped markets for Founders. “China and Russia are really exciting to think about and could be huge demographics for us,” says May. “But the key is to ensure quality is always taken care of. We want to make sure that Founders tastes the same in Japan, Brazil, the U.K., and Grand Rapids, consistency is everything.” “Beer brewed for us” is a mantra at Founders, but now for everyone else in the world as well.

Oxx Coffeeboxx: The world’s toughest coffee maker

Jim Doan can make a mean cup of coffee, especially when he uses his newest invention, the Oxx Coffeeboxx. Manufactured in Grand Rapids, this is a coffee maker for the masses, for the everyday men and women who avoid desk jobs and need to get their hands dirty on the job, but also don’t enjoy drinking tepid coffee from a thermos.

Doan worked for the appliance giant Whirlpool before forming his own company in Grand Rapids in 2013. He had the idea for this tough coffee maker concept while he was watching a construction company build his house. “When the subdivision was about 25 percent complete I would go and observe the construction workers; I would specifically notice the kinds of appliances they brought on site,” says Doan. “They often brought home appliances to the job site, appliances I never expected to see outside in a rough environment.” Jim noted that the appliances took quite a beating, which led him to realize that everyone, no matter the occupation, wants a quality beverage and good food. “People need quality beverages no matter where they work, many Americans don’t work in an office, they are remote such as the military, firefighters, and construction workers. Their jobs take them into rugged environments and they need appliances that can go along with them,” says Doan.

Enter Oxx Cofeeboxx. This coffeemaker is a single cup brewing system; it’s crush proof, water resistant, and built to take a beating. It accepts any Keurig style k-cup, but holds 75 percent more water than the normal single cup brewing system. It weighs in at 11 pounds and requires a 120 volt power source for use. This hot coffee alternative has become very popular among the construction and military industries; it has also sold well as a recreation coffee alternative for avid campers and adventurers alike. “The feedback we’ve received has been very positive,” says Doan. “People keep asking us why something like this wasn’t around before.”

In 2016 Oxx expects to sell one million of these on-the-go coffee makers, which can be purchased online or through a handful of retailers. This is first product manufactured by Oxx, but expect to see much more from them in the future.

Hemp Solutions USA: Working for nature and creating sustainable solutions

Did you know hemp produces more pulp than trees, removes more carbon dioxide than other crops, is considered a superfood, has more than 5,000 textile uses, and requires no pesticides? Just ask James Novak, one of Hemp Solutions’ four founding members. As a raw materials provider of industrial hemp that is located in the Grand Rapids area, this company plans to help the world make big changes related to the production of sustainable goods. “If you can make it from wood, cotton, plastic, concrete, metal—just about anything—you can probably make it from hemp,” says Novak. “We want to be a source for eco-friendly products, services, and education.”

Novak founded Hemp Solutions in 2011 in Joshua Tree, California and then decided to relocate the operation to the Midwest in 2012. “I saw the [environmental] destruction and devastation happening in the Midwest, and I felt empowered to come back and try to bring a positive solution to the area.” Novak chose Grand Rapids because of the city’s progressive mindset and openness to sustainability.

Hemp cultivation doesn’t harm the environment, but actually helps it. For example, one acre of industrial hemp produces four times as much raw material as one acre of trees. Hemp is carbon neutral and removes more carbon dioxide than any other plant. It requires less water than cotton and uses no pesticides. Hemp Solutions has been working hard to develop innovative products that will take this raw material to the next level. For example, they have been part of green building redevelopment projects, providing hemp-based alternatives to wood and concrete for LEED certified buildings.

Their premiere product, a grass root grow mat, is turning traditional farming on its head. “In less than two weeks we are able to harvest micro-greens that have had almost no water, no light and no fertilizer,” says Novak. Companies worldwide are using these grow mats and vertically farming; with it they are able to produce more than 40 different varieties of greens and compost the mat when they are done.

Goods made from hemp—including the nutritious seeds and oil—are legal in all 50 states, but the actual farming of this versatile crop is legal in only 23 states, most strictly for research purposes. Hemp has been grown worldwide for thousands of years. It has more than 25,000 uses, and none of them have to do with THC. While hemp is a cousin of marijuana, the plant does not bud and has no psychoactive effect. “The biggest thing we are trying to do currently is spread awareness about the powerful uses of hemp and separate ourselves from the stigma that tends to be associated with it,” says Novak. “We have been fighting to stay in Grand Rapids because we are proud of what this area has been able to accomplish. There’s so much potential, so many uses for hemp; we have to continue to educate others and spread the word.”

Novak went on to say that his business has faced resistance at the city and state level, stressing that he wants “local residents to know that we stand apart from the pack and are not a marijuana business. We are a business who truly cares about the environment, the people and the community.” He continues, saying that “we would like to see more local support and attention to the products, education and path that we’re on. It all has a major impact on the local community, our state and the planet.”

Hemp can positively influence the way houses are built and food is grown; it can change the way we use energy and enhance our technology…it’s time to pay attention.

VR Therapy and Counseling Center: Changing the way we treat mental health

The Grand Rapids-based VR Therapy and Counseling Center has created virtual reality programs that are poised to not only change the way mental health is treated in the city, but around the country and potentially, one day, even the globe.

Since it debuted in January 2015, the center has offered a virtual reality program that is customized to meet clients’ needs. So, for example, a man with a paralyzing fear of heights was able to overcome his phobia because the center created a program in which he had to repeatedly navigate a cliff-filled canyon.

“We use it with phobias a lot,” VR Therapy and Counseling Center owner and psychotherapist Thomas Overly says of the clinic’s virtual reality setup. “We worked with the guy who came in with the extreme fear of height; we’ve treated people for anxiety, PTSD. We have people come in, we interview them and we customize the [virtual reality] program to meet their needs.”

First born as a research project for his graduate program at Grand Valley State University, Overly’s virtual reality therapy program has gone on to become a business at which Overly and two computer programmers have worked to offer virtual reality therapy to everyone from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to businessmen and women with social anxiety, and individuals suffering from depression and eating disorders, among others.

Now, in addition to the current therapy, the center has launched another virtual reality program called a “behavioral rehearsal system,” which uses virtual reality and facial and full-body motion tracking to allow the therapists to interact with clients by controlling characters with the virtual environments the programmers create for them. Translation: the therapists can become any character necessary to help the client.

“I can play every role with them: I can be a little girl, an old man, any race,” Overly says.

Thanks to a recent $30,000 grant from Comcast Business’ Innovations 4 Entrepreneurs contest, the center is able to disperse this technology to other mental health facilities, something that could significantly alter the landscape of therapy.

“This is huge for us,” Overly says of the award. “We get to upgrade our technology, and we want to get this technology into other people’s hands. We want to train them and help them use this.”

The tip of the iceberg

This really is just the beginning. While we focused on just a few products or ideas making an impact, there are so many more. Grand Rapids is a hub for exploration and invention: we grow ideas here; we incubate them. That's why programs like Start Garden, the Grand Rapids SmartZone, and the open pitch competition 5x5 are so successful here; we value ingenuity and keep our eyes to the sky. Grand Rapids is growing hand over fist, and with new people and communities comes new ways of thinking and innovative solutions to the world's current problems. There' s no doubt about it: Grand Rapids will continue to be a place worth talking about.
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