Brandon Marken is co-founder and CEO of Lean Rocket Lab, a tech incubator in Jackson, Michigan, that focuses on helping new founders with an idea for a manufacturing business or product go from 0 to 60. Lean Rocket Lab has a generous open-door policy to help new entrepreneurs with a business idea walk in with a business idea, whether it’s well-formed or early stage, and be given some guidance and mentorship and connection with professionals who can help them build into a successful business. Now Lean Rocket Lab is launching a new accelerator program in the advanced manufacturing space, to bring together more new businesses on the tech side of manufacturing with Jackson Michigan’s global hub of hundreds of manufacturing companies to help new manufactured products get out into the world.
They wanted to keep Jackson in its spot as a top U.S. and global hub for manufacturing, and they saw an opportunity to support the new business and tech side of that industry.
Marken says he and co-founder/COO Ken Seneff attended bootcamp at Ann Arbor SPARK. “The experience and meeting other founders made me super curious,” Marken says of the idea of starting his own incubator. “Ken and I went to TechTown Chicago. We saw an interconnected tech ecosystem around the Great Lakes but didn’t see it in Jackson. We have hundreds of manufacturing companies here, from aerospace to automotive to medical device manufacturers. We just make stuff here in Jackson and ship it all over the world.”
“Why don’t we leverage investors and our capability in manufacturing?” Marken says he and Seneff asked themselves. They wanted to keep Jackson in its spot as a top U.S. and global hub for manufacturing, and they saw an opportunity to support the new business and tech side of that industry.
“We worked with 50+ teams last year,” Marken says of the relatively new venture that is supported by the MEDC as a smartzone incubator. “It proved out the theory that if you’re a a startup with a product or service in manufacturing tech, you’d want to come to Jackson.” Marken says that in Jackson, investors are the manufacturers. Many people own their own manufacturing companies here, and connecting new business ideas and founders with the resources in funding and manufacturing has become Lean Rocket Lab’s niche in the middle of Michigan’s manufacturing economy.
Fred Molnar, Vice President of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, tells us that “it’s amazing what’s going on in Jackson, and other Michigan towns like Houghton.” He says Marken and Seneff partnered with The Enterprise Group of Jackson, which manages the smartzone in Jackson, and Marken and Seneff helped on the innovation side. The Enterprise Group is still managing the SmartZone and they are critical partners of the lab. The new partnership worked, Molnar says, because it “created a focus area” that helped the smartzone take off on the entrepreneurial side of existing Michigan industries.
“A person who grows up on the south side of Jackson, and walks in with an idea on a napkin, we’re going to connect them with a gauntlet of resources,” Marken says. “Military-grade tech out of a university–same resources. We’ve been super intentional about that.”
“All we did was we connected our incredible manufacturing community with the smartzone and entrepreneurial ecosystem around the state and positioned ourselves as a hub,” Marken explains. “We collaborate with other hubs, and then create interface between well-connected ecosystems in the state…. We saw there’s value in density and in learning from people with different backgrounds. Lean Rocket Lab has become a hub of things going on, from board meetings to meetups. We learned there are different paths into the entrepreneurial world. We don’t have a research university in Jackson. We got connected to the University of Michigan and Michigan State, and when they have tech coming out related to manufacturing, we help them.”
“We also got connected with the guys at Ferris Wheel in Flint,” Marken tells us. Ferris Wheel has a similar open-door policy that supports new founders even when their ideas are very early stage, which is appropriate to the cities where they are located, where startups and entrepreneurship is a newer way to business development. “A person who grows up on the south side of Jackson, and walks in with an idea on a napkin, we’re going to connect them with a gauntlet of resources,” Marken says. “Military-grade tech out of a university–same resources. We’ve been super intentional about that. We work with teams more than technology, in an approach that invests in people.”
“From a state perspective, we do try to break down barriers,” Molnar of the MEDC tells us of all smartzone programs like Lean Rocket Lab. “There is some friendly competition. We get smartzones together once a quarter to network.”
Lean Rocket Lab’s 4.0 Accelerator
Now Lean Rocket Lab is helping launch a new 4.0 accelerator program to match more businesses with resources in manufacturing to support their success in a digital economy, focusing on ventures from manufacturing tech to Internet of Things. According to Automation Alley, which is spearheading the program, “The Industry 4.0 Accelerator program—led by Automation Alley with support services from Lean Rocket Lab and Lawrence Technological University’s Centrepolis Accelerator—is a $2.5 million investment fund made possible through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation with $1.3 million currently available for early-stage companies as well as established firms looking to commercialize products, services or technologies within the Industry 4.0 sector.”
“The 4.0 Accelerator is a 6-month accelerator overing over $110k in investment and services and the support of our manufacturing network and platform for tech locally to help new ventures grow here,” Marken says of the new program. “The manufacturers we represent will become the laboratory and customer base [for these business ventures]. It’s truly an intersection of tech and manufacturing, and will help make sure Michigan remains the global center of advanced manufacturing.”
How To Connect with Mid-Michigan’s Manufacturing Tech Scene
If you would like to reach out to manufacturers of the mid-Michigan ecosystem, you can connect with the following networks: