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GRBJ 30th Year: Technological changes leave region trying to keep pace
Explosive growth will squeeze some mid-sized firms.
Five-thousand dollars on a credit card was all Jeanne Englehart needed to start her computer training company. That was the West Michigan of 1985.
Credit and technology — among other things — have changed since then.
Englehart, now vice president of The Charter Group and former president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said she has seen technology change drastically for business, both on a global and local basis, over the course of her career. When she started that first business, Productivity Point, she focused on training the average business worker in basic computer technology. New technology every year meant she needed to keep re-training them.
“I was pretty naïve,” Englehart said. “What I didn’t see coming was how many times the programs would change and people would need to be retrained.”
Englehart sold that company in 1998, but by then, technology was expanding so quickly that the business world was being sucked along in its wake.
West Michigan is a business community rich with “many flavors” of technology, she said, helping the area earn a reputation as a biosciences hub. That would not have happened without technology, Englehart said, because technology is the one thing every industry needs.
“We are becoming a hub for certain industries, and those industries attract technology,” she said. “Look at what’s happening at Van Andel Institute. Sure, they’re scientists, but there’s technology in every decision.”
Erik Hall, manager of coLab, formerly known as Grand Rapids Tech Hub, echoed Englehart’s assessment, adding that most technologies emerge out of universities and the health care sector, which is another factor in Grand Rapids’ favor.
“Biotech is huge here and that’s really because of the Van Andel Institute and Spectrum and Metro and other huge health organizations putting money into the development. And when it comes down to it, people are going to do what they can with money,” Hall said. “I think there’s always going to be web tech, but biotech is something that’s going to be huge.”
In the past 30 years, Englehart said there have been major positive changes in West Michigan’s bioscience technology industry, but there are other technology areas that still need work, she said. After all, technology by itself can’t really improve a city or a business operation, she said, because new technology and its processes are only as effective as the people who use them.
Currently, West Michigan faces obstacles that are leading to loss of technology talent, she said.
“Many of the individuals coming to Grand Rapids have come from different cultures, and they aren’t sure this is the city they want to stay in because it’s not culturally welcoming,” she said.
“We have to adapt to those cultural obstacles if we want to see our community become successful. If we fail to adapt to those cultural obstacles … it will lead to failure in those sectors.”
Aaron Schaap, founder of Elevator Up, a web hosting and development company, and organizer of the co-working community called The Factory, is looking for solutions to Englehart’s concerns about talent. This spring, Schaap started coLearning at The Factory, a program offering classes in technology, design and business in hopes of educating local entrepreneurs and professionals on the ever-changing world of technology.
As far as West Michigan is concerned, it’s also an attempt to curb a resources shortage by developing a local pool of technology talent, he said.
“There are so many companies that want people, but they just can’t find the talent fast enough. It’s an exciting time but a nerve-racking time, too. If you’re a small business, you can’t just wait around for four years for people,” Schaap said.
“We need to support local colleges, but it’s unrealistic to have them solve all those problems. So companies are stepping up, spending a lot of money on professional development.”
Englehart and Schaap share the belief that West Michigan’s future industries will be built and sustained by technology. In the past 30 years, technology has given the world the PC, Internet and smartphones, Englehart said, at least one of which every business uses in some capacity.
Now, however, the most important issue businesses need to explore is “big data,” she said, which has to do with the way information is collected and analyzed. On a federal level, it’s essentially become Big Brother, she said, citing recent revelations and leaks about the National Security Agency. But on a business level, it’s what’s at the heart of the future of product development, marketing — everything.
Expect to see a lot of small businesses that specialize in harnessing big data pop up all over the place, she said, adding that some mid-sized data businesses will have to decide whether they want to become larger and compete on scale, or become smaller and compete on speed.
“The companies that harness the big data and figure out how to use it are going to be the big winners here,” she said. “The companies that will emerge are companies that help people use and analyze the data and make changes to their business as a result of their data. It’s an art and science.”
Hall said he couldn’t agree more with Englehart’s assessment of big data. He uses it for his business, Lee Shore Ventures, and encourages other startups to do the same by hiring someone with an analysis background.
If business leaders take this trend shift seriously, giving big data and the technology it feeds on more of a focus, it could mean an explosion of hubs for technology and design all over the city — hubs rooted in new venture seed funds that didn’t exist when Englehart started her business with a credit card.
“I see Grand Rapids being able to have a tech culture, especially if you look at how much manufacturing is in the area,” Hall said. “Tech is intertwined with everything. … That’s how manufacturing makes their money.”