The world requires innovation—now more than ever. Science. Technology. Engineering. Math. Along the wild shores of Lake Superior, researchers, students, and entrepreneurs create the future. So says the website for MTEC SmartZone, a tech incubator that is located on the shores of Lake Superior in northern Michigan. You can’t get much farther north in the United States toward fresh air and rugged wilderness at the gateway to the Keewenaw Peninsula that juts out into cold and stunningly beautiful Lake Superior, and you can’t get much better aligned with Michigan tech. That’s because MTEC operates out of Michigan Technological University in Houghton. One of the biggest challenges currently facing Michigan’s new growth in tech-related industries is that there is so little media coverage or visiblity for all the smaller players that make up a very large movement of startups that are revitalizing Michigan’s economy. Who knew there were tech incubators all over the state of Michigan? Hardly anyone, including us until recently.
The SmartZones of Michigan Tech
“There are now 21 SmartZones in Michigan,” MTEC SmartZone Director of Marketing and Communications Chelsea Goodreau tells us from Houghton, where the local MTEC SmartZone supports high-tech startups coming out of Michigan Tech. “In 2003, we were one of the first,” Goodreau says.
Current startups in the MTEC cohort include companies like Orbion, who recently raised $9.2 million to work with NASA building fuel-efficient ion plasma thrusters for satellites. “Orbion is located in an old factory built in the 1800s,” Goodreau says, “and now it’s lab space for aerospace research.”
MTEC CEO Daniel Jamison says they have a unique test track that offers “400 inches of snow for autonomous vehicle testing. This used to be a military test site,” he says. “Michigan Tech bought it and it was converted and developed through an initiative by Planet M and the MEDC.”
Trends in Northern Michigan Tech
We ask Jamison what trends he’s seeing in tech in northern Michigan, where most founders still struggle to connect to larger founder and financing communities. “Trends? The most snow,” Jamison jokes, but then grows serious. “We’re located in both Houghton and Hancock,” he says, “so both municipalities fund us and that gives us a broader brush to plant organizations and find facilities in both jurisdictions.” Jamison says MTEC is seeing companies that are a surprisingly good fit for the location and rugged terrain, such as startup Neuvokas, founded by CEO Erik Kiilunen in 2013, which has developed a new product that makes roads cheaper and stronger. Neuvokas has developed a high-speed platform processing technology to manufacture Fiber Reinforced Polymer composites. GatorBar, a Neuvokas brand rebar product, is a lightweight, rust-free, lower-cost replacement for steel rebar. “It’s one-third the weight,” Jamison reports, “and Neuvokas has a new grant from the Department of Energy.”
Creating Critical Mass With Founders
What are they working to build now? Critical mass of connecting founders and being more pro-active, Goodreau and Jamison agree. “What’s changed is that people don’t need space as much as to be connected to each other,” Jamison says. “High density of founders makes more of an impact than capital or real estate. Our incubator is modified recently to create a pressure cooker where startups interact more, which is what we’ve seen around MIT at Lincoln Labs, where diverse teams interact.”
“Incubators pay bills for spaces,” Jamison goes on. “We’re lucky at Michigan Tech in that they own buildings. I don’t have to make a profit on real estate, so we can be more flexible on use.”
The Return North Event Tech Job Fair
The biggest challenge of developing an incubator in a remote location is still distance and awareness. Goodreau says since bringing her on for communications, MTEC has been trying to be more proactive about getting out there and connecting with founders and other communities. In that vein, MTEC is hosting its upcoming Return North Event around Thanksgiving in partnership with the Innovate Marquette SmartZone. Thanksgiving is a time when many people with family in the area are passing through the area already. The Return North Event is a career fair to connect talent and local businesses for people who would like to find work closer to family.
You can find a list of startups from the MTEC incubator here, and we’ll bring you more news out of northern Michigan’s tech scene as the startup scene grows there as well as connecting with other incubator programs in the northern and western regions of the state, where many startup programs are in their infancy.