Unleashing innovation: Tech Week's impact on Grand Rapids and beyond

Curiosity fuels human innovation, and Grand Rapids is about to embrace this spirit during its annual Tech Week, set to pulse with the energy of industry, culture and technology.

This is the second year Tech Week will be hosted in Grand Rapids, scheduled Sept. 18-23, involving 40 events, nearly 40 community partners and an expected attendance of more than 6,000 visitors. 

The aim of Tech Week 2023 is to spotlight technology and innovation across all industries in greater Grand Rapids. 

Building on tech success

The inaugural Tech Week featured four days of events, drawing 3,500 attendees. Behind the scenes, Andria Romkema, senior vice president of marketing for The Right Place and the lead organizer for Tech Week, is playing a pivotal role in the event's success, which she emphasizes is a community-wide effort.

“Tech Week isn't possible without all of our community partners and their support and leadership," she says.

Drawing inspiration from prominent tech events nationwide, the vision for Tech Week was born out of The Right Place's 10 year regional tech strategy launched in 2022.

"Our goal with that tech strategy is that we will increase our tech employment, up to 10% of our regional employment, which equals about 20,000 jobs in the next 10 years," Romkema says.

Romkema's overarching goal for this year's Tech Week is to emphasize greater Grand Rapids' robust and burgeoning tech industry. She hopes attendees leave with a profound understanding of the city's tech prowess and the myriad opportunities it offers.

Tech Week: An elevating experience

Philomena Mantella, president of Grand Valley State University, applauds the leadership of The Right Place for conceptualizing and driving the initiative — not only for enhancing the community but also aligning with the region's tech-focused strategy.

Mantella is a firm believer in the transformative power of technology.

"At this point, everything is a tech economy,” she says.

She envisions Tech Week as a pivotal platform to connect stakeholders, foster partnerships and shine a spotlight on the opportunities West Michigan offers. The event's diverse range of sessions, exhibits, and discussions is poised to elevate the region's standing as a tech hub.

The impact, however, isn't limited to established players. Tech Week holds the potential to influence the next generation, organizers say. Mantella speaks passionately about GVSU's commitment to growth. With a growing student body and a focus on experiential learning, the university aims to triple its tech output by 2030. Tech Week is a conduit to achieving this goal by promoting visibility and fostering partnerships.

A city united by tech

Jeremiah Gracia, economic development director for the city of Grand Rapids, is impressed by Tech Week's rapid evolution from last year's inaugural sprint to this year's comprehensive lineup. He views Tech Week as a golden opportunity to showcase the city's tech ecosystem, attracting talent and businesses alike.

Tech Week, in Gracia's words, "unites the region around technology and innovation." Its multifaceted approach — ranging from hands-on exhibits to pitch competitions — paints a comprehensive picture of Grand Rapids as a thriving tech hub.

“Tech Week is a foundational asset for the regional tech strategy that we are supportive of with the Right Place,” Gracia says. “And this really puts substance and energy around that strategy, and showcases the reality of what our tech community is and what it's positioned to become.”

From fostering existing partnerships to kindling fresh collaborations, Tech Week is poised to catalyze the tech economy's growth, he says.

Fueling innovation through Tech Week

Paul Moore, director of Start Garden and a key player in the inception of ArtPrize, is deeply involved in Tech Week this year through Start Garden's annual Demo Day. This event is the culmination of an extensive entrepreneur competition, where 100 selected entrepreneurs each received a $1,000 grant to develop their ideas. They return during Tech Week to showcase their projects, and the top 10 receive grants of $20,000 each with the opportunity to access a $20,000 loan, totaling $40,000 in potential funding per winner.

Tech Week, according to Moore, is a platform to concentrate attention on the innovation happening in Grand Rapids and the surrounding region. It serves as an opportunity to showcase the innovation that often occurs behind the scenes, both to residents and visitors. By inviting people from outside the area, Tech Week helps to raise awareness about the region's potential and opportunities.

One of the highlights Moore mentions is the Black & Brown Founders Brunch organized by Andrea Wallace, the founder of Opnr Music. This event, taking place after Demo Day, creates an opportunity for technologists to network and collaborate.

"It's another example of being able to bring together technologists to meet each other and network in a way that they might not otherwise have," Moore says. "The opportunities are really in knitting together relationships around the innovation and technology space here, and driving forward that collaboration and idea exchange that comes as a result of bringing those people together."

The value of attending

For Mantella, Tech Week is an avenue to convey Grand Valley State University's commitment to holistic learning and the tech-driven future. The takeaway? The palpable excitement to be part of a transformative journey and contribute to the growth of the tech ecosystem.

Mantella underscores her excitement for Tech Week events throughout greater Grand Rapids. In particular, GR in XR On The Blue Bridge, hosted by GVSU, offers an immersive showcase of how extended reality and digital media can reshape learning and enhance experiences. This project mirrors Grand Valley State University's broader vision of leveraging technology to enrich education and connect students with real-world challenges.

Gracia's aspirations for local attendees resonate with Mantella's vision. For locals, Tech Week's significance lies in seeing their contributions acknowledged and being part of a thriving community. Non-locals, on the other hand, can discover the hidden gems that Grand Rapids offers — a tech-driven environment interwoven with a vibrant arts scene, showcased through partnerships with events such as ArtPrize, Gracia says.

Romkema is particularly excited about the kickoff event featuring Malcolm Gladwell, a globally recognized master storyteller and New York Times bestselling author. She believes Gladwell's presence will inspire the journey to transform Grand Rapids into one of the Midwest's leading tech hubs.

“We're excited to hear from him as we go on this journey to turn ourselves into one of the leading Midwest tech hubs,” Romkema says. “Malcolm is going to be very inspirational. That's one of the can’t miss events, along with Start Garden’s Demo Day in Calder Plaza, and then the Confluence Festival is going to be in Rosa Parks circle. The community is gonna see tech taking over the downtown area for that whole week of September 18.” 

Moore believes that Tech Week's impact goes beyond showcasing specific events. It's about changing perceptions and showing that Grand Rapids is a vibrant hub of innovation and technology. This message is critical for the city's growth and attracting talent and businesses. Just as ArtPrize helped change the perception of Grand Rapids as a cultural hub, Tech Week is transforming it into a tech and innovation powerhouse.

"The nature of Tech Week is to, of course, showcase certain things like Demo Day," he says. "Then, to create pretty much any and every chance to come together with like-minded people who are interested in where the new technology economy is going, meet each other and to get connected."

For organizers, speakers and attendees alike, Tech Week isn't merely an event. It's a catalyst for transformation. The innovation-driven initiatives underline a commitment to forge ahead in the tech space. 

Tech Week event highlights

Tech Week employs an unconference model, Romkema explains, ensuring a customized experience for attendees in greater Grand Rapids and communities throughout West Michigan. 

“We have event hosts that are hosting topics that are relevant to them,” Romkema says. This gives us a schedule that's very robust, and it allows attendees to choose their own adventure, versus one conference pass and a couple tracks you can do. We have over 40 events that people can pick and choose from and most of them are free.”

Whether it's networking, engaging with founders, exploring tech talent, or delving into various tech-related topics, the list of events offers a diverse menu of choices.
The future of tech in Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids is on the cusp of transformation, and Tech Week serves as a vehicle for this change. With the unwavering dedication of visionary leaders and a growing base of tech talent, the city is poised to drive innovation across industries. 

As Tech Week approaches, the region is buzzing with anticipation for immersive experiences, knowledge sharing and the profound impact that technology can have on shaping a brighter future for Grand Rapids and beyond.

This series seeks to highlight tech organizations and employers throughout Greater Grand Rapids that are delivering innovative programs and addressing talent pipeline challenges and seeking to develop, attract and retain quality talent in West Michigan. This series is underwritten by The Right Place.
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