Visit to SXSW shows how West Michigan can be a force in technology

After spending more than a week being immersed in visions of futuristic technology at the South by Southwest conference (SXSW), a West Michigan business leader is confident that smaller communities like Grand Rapids can still have a great impact.

“We can start to incorporate (artificial intelligence) now, make some small pivots, and remain competitive,” says Jennifer Wangler, vice president of technology for The Right Place

Wangler was part of a West Michigan contingent who took part in the conference in Austin, Texas, in March. The annual event is a convergence of leaders in technology, music, arts and culture. 

Jennifer Wangler with others from Grand Rapids at SXSW.

Wangler believes the message of the conference’s keynote speaker, futurist Amy Webb, has relevance for West MIchigan, especially with Tech Week Grand Rapids coming up in September.

“She talked a lot about AI and connected well with where we are in Western Michigan with our 10-year tech strategy and the things that are happening with our local leaders in our business community,” says Wangler.

Be ready for the future

Webb highlighted several key points regarding the future of technology in the face of rapid advancements:
Embrace Uncertainty. Webb emphasized the need for individuals and organizations to accept uncertainty as a part of navigating the evolving landscape of AI and other technologies. She suggests making small, incremental pivots to adapt, which can help manage discomfort in uncertain times.
Technology Supercycle. She said a technology supercycle encompasses major innovations such as AI, wearable technology, and biotechnology. This cycle is expected to bring about significant changes and advancements across various industries. Wangler says “West Michigan's vibrant health and medical sector offers opportunities for the region to compete globally and attract top talent.”
Data Literacy and Sharing. Webb stressed the importance of data literacy and the need to be cautious about the data we share. Making informed choices requires understanding the implications of data usage and ensuring responsible data handling.
Connected Resources. She discussed the connectedness of resources and devices that collect data, emphasizing the importance of understanding how these connections shape our world.
Biotechnology. Webb touched on the potential of biotechnology and its implications for the future, particularly in areas such as health care and life sciences.
Overall, Webb's talk encouraged a long-term perspective on AI and technology, urging leaders and individuals to be flexible and prepared for change while making informed choices with data and embracing the potential of new innovations. 

In her role with The Right Place, Wangler works with site selectors to help companies explore various territories when they're thinking about moving their headquarters or satellite offices to West Michigan.

“The reason that we do events like South by Southwest is because two years ago, we launched our 10-year tech strategy. One goal of that strategy is to increase the density of our tech workers,” says Wangler. “In order to do that, we need to get out of our own backyard and show off and market the vibrant scene that we have here in Grand Rapids.”

Touting, learning about Michigan

The West Michigan group was part of the Michigan House, which serves as the state’s “embassy” to South by Southwest. Each year, the Michigan House presence grows.

She met people from all across the Mitten State whose mission also is to elevate the tech ecosystem, from startup to enterprise.

“It was great to come together as a state and talk about the opportunities to elevate Michigan, but then also to come together as a state to show off all of the vibrant parts that make up Michigan,” Wangler says. 

The Right Place's Jennifer Wangler interviews West Michigan tech founders at SXSW for her podcast.

Detroit Black Tech is doing some amazing things in Detroit. So it was really exciting to see the synergies and the things that are happening with them. I met a number of venture capitalists or angel groups that are trying to raise the awareness and the density of capital in the state of Michigan, as well as understanding what they're seeing and what they're investing in,” says Wangler. 

She met with a number of startups from Austin that are ready to expand their technology and stopped by the Michigan House to learn about the opportunities in Michigan. 

“We talked to them about their technology, but at the same time, we were able to introduce them to a number of tech startups that were already in Michigan,” says Wangler. “They could see their peers in the state of Michigan actually elevating their companies as well.”

Startups in the spotlight

Some tech startups attended as part of the Grand Rapids SmartZone group, including Vetr Health, which coordinates in-home veterinary services; Virtual Round Ballers, a sports tech platform in mixed reality; and Farmish, an app that gives local food producers a platform and way to connect to buy from one another. 

Wangler sat down with entrepreneurs behind the startups for podcasts to talk about their SXSW experience and how it could help their businesses.

In the podcast, Terra Osman, founder of Farmish, shared about the face-to-face interactions she’s had at SXSW. “I was able to connect with some food and ag tech investors that I have watched from afar,” she said.

Christine Schwarz is co-founder of Virtual Round Ballers, a realistic, movement-based basketball game in virtual reality. 

“It's my first time here. I’m very excited to be here,” Schwarz said during her podcast, sharing that the firm is working on raising $500,000 to complete the game and launch it on the Oculus app lab store. 

Jennifer Wangler hangs out at SXSW.

Rachel Berkal is co-founder of Vetr Health, a membership-based home veterinary care service  that provides pet owners with in-home visits, vaccines, testing and unlimited telehealth. 

“We’ve been able to find some really incredible tech companies in the pet space that we've been able to meet and bounce ideas off and hopefully partner going forward. SXSW is a great platform to meet investors and other founders,” Berkal told Wangler in her podcast.

The company was invited on the SXSW stage as part of the Elite Eight of the Midwest.

“We were grateful to be on the stage … with so many other fantastic companies that are doing wonderful things,” Berkal says. “We walked away with getting our message out there and hopefully making some really good connections through the opportunity.”

Wangler says the success of three companies at SXSW shows why Grand Rapids is fertile ground for tech companies.

“We have a vibrant network here in the greater Grand Rapids and the ability for a startup to seek mentors to raise capital to do all of the things that they need to do to build their business,” says Wangler. 

“Overall, they see that Grand Rapids is a very collaborative community. There’s a special way of networking with people who really want to work together to support early stage startup companies in a way that we just don't see in other parts of the country.”

Builds momentum for Tech Week

The SXSW conference sets the stage for the The Right Place Technology Council of West Michigan’s signature event in the fall, Tech Week GR, which also aims to increase the marketability of West Michigan. 

The Sept. 16-20 event is for local businesses as well as an opportunity for others from outside the region to see the region’s vibrant tech ecosystem. It includes events ranging from hands-on tech exhibits, panel discussions, pitch competitions, and networking opportunities.

Last year, the event drew more than 13,000 visitors to 40 events. This year, there will be tech tracks, such as AI advanced manufacturing, IOT space in manufacturing, as well as health care and life science.

“Knowledge workers want to be where other knowledge workers are, and our founders want to be where other founders are,” says Wangler. “So there's kind of this rising-tide mentality that when you're bringing in these companies and the scientists and the technologists, that's going to elevate the playing field for every business.”

Learn more about Tech Week GR here.

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Wangler.

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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