InnovationWorks gains support

October 20, 2008
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Much attention last week was centered around the UM/ULI Real Estate Forum being held in Grand Rapids for the first time in its history. But on the day when hundreds of real estate professionals flocked to downtown to learn about real estate development, two Grand Rapids organizations came together at the Press Club to make an announcement that will help keep real estate development in the region going.

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation announced a $500,000 grant to The Right Place Inc.’s InnovationWorks, a regional initiative spread through seven counties to help the commercialization of products, processes and services.

“The award is significant for the Community Foundation, but more importantly, it is significant in what it has the potential to do for this community and the region,” said Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. “The Community Foundation has six funding priorities, and one of them is economic prosperity. This area is especially difficult to find funding matches for and then to measure its impact. That’s why we are so excited to have the opportunity to fund this comprehensive effort, which has such tangible outcomes.”

This will mark the sixth and largest grant the foundation has awarded The Right Place since 1986; it will be dispersed over a two-year period.

“At this time in West Michigan’s economy, and indeed beyond, there is a need to support regional entrepreneurs in bringing their ideas forward and ultimately into fruition,” said Sieger. “It provides a valuable service at a critical time.”

InnovationWorks was initially funded by a portion of the $15 million WIRED grant, which supported the program with $1 million per year and runs out in January. The annual operating cost for InnovationWorks ranges between $900,000 and $1 million.

Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc., said the organization is still looking for additional funding and may possibly begin charging for the use of its “Idea Portal.” The portal is a virtual network allowing people to post an idea or search a regional intellectual property database to help business owners grow their business.

“We need a robust infrastructure for economic development, and InnovationWorks is that next generation of that infrastructure,” said Klohs. “Our job is to keep jobs here, grow jobs here, to work with inventors, and really start looking at how do we get innovation really embedded into our region and make that the focal point of our growth.”

Since InnovationWorks launched in 2007, it has aided in the conception of 98 business plans and helped 288 clients bring their ideas to market. One such client is John Slagter, owner of Mackinac Technology Co.

Through InnovationWorks, Slagter has brought two ideas to the marketplace and is currently working with the organization on a third. He said InnovationWorks helps inventors go to market more quickly with fewer mistakes and at a lower cost, and also provides a “traveling companion” down that lonely road that inventors take.

“Anybody who has gone through the process of being an inventor and trying to bring that product to market knows what a lonely road that is. Inventors are people who stand at that fork in the road and take the one less traveled. There’s a very good reason that road is less traveled, it’s because it’s very difficult,” said Slagter.

“InnovationWorks gets in the passenger seat and provides a GPS system that helps navigate down the road less traveled.”

Sieger recited a quote from author Thomas Friedman stressing the life-giving potential that innovation brings to the region’s economy. “He noted in part that the motto he would put on every license plate of every Michiganian would be ‘Invent baby, invent.’”

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