Economic Development, Higher Education, and Small Business & Startups

Business Incubator puts ‘smart’ in SmartZone

The Muskegon Innovation Hub coaches entrepreneurs at all stages of development.

November 4, 2016
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There’s a hub in Muskegon where the door is always open to business owners. And its clients come from all sorts of backgrounds with diverse needs and goals.

But the one need they all have in common? Growth.

The Muskegon Innovation Hub, 200 Viridian Drive in Muskegon, is an arm of Grand Valley State University founded in 2003 as the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC). It was established as part of Muskegon’s SmartZone, one of 17 state-funded projects designed to revitalize depressed urban areas and brownfield sites through high-tech development.

The development MAREC initially focused on was in the alternative and renewable energy sector, like its name suggested. But as the outreach began to grow, its leaders knew it needed a new, more inclusive name. Thus, the Muskegon Innovation Hub was born in May.

“One of the things that was part of the driving force behind changing our name was we suspected our name, MAREC, was causing some confusion in the community,” said Kevin Ricco, Muskegon Innovation Hub director. “A lot of people didn’t know what we did and thought we were focused specifically on alternative energy. Certainly, we work with alternative energy clients, because we’re in a SmartZone, but we also work with other businesses.”

Tom Hopper, associate director for business development at the Muskegon Innovation Hub, said the hub focuses on two main things:

“The business incubator provides coaching and networking opportunities, and that’s very hands-on,” he said. “In that program, we have five businesses right now. But then we also have a co-working space that has, at any given time, five or six businesses. That space just opened, so it’s not filled to its full capacity, yet.”

Ricco said the business incubator aims to help clients “reach milestones until they’re ready to stand on their own two feet.” This comes in the form of creating business plans, coaching, writing grants, training, mentoring, teaching financial principles, building marketing plans and helping businesses to be more innovative in their industries.

He said the business incubator snags clients at all stages.

“We get innovators and entrepreneurs coming to us who have their design sketched on a napkin, versus those who have already built their prototypes and are further along in the process,” Ricco said.

Valerie Byrnes, the business incubator manager, oversees a portfolio of clients who are looking for business acceleration and grant writing assistance, and she also is the manager for the co-working space, where business owners or employees come for office space and networking opportunities.

“Customers seek us out if they’re seeking to innovate in their business, if they’re looking to launch their business or if they’re seeking to grow,” Byrnes said. “(We are about) creating that open door, so people know where they fit in the pipeline.”

Hopper and Byrnes agreed the hub’s offerings are broader than just the business incubator and the co-working space, citing its educational opportunities as an example.

“A few months ago, we had Chris Heivly in here for a lecture, co-founder of Mapquest, and he was talking about what it’s like to launch your business based on his book (‘Build the Fort’),” Hopper said. “That brought in 50 people — business owners and entrepreneurs from the area.”

On Oct. 27, the hub hosted its annual open house for the community with entertainment and hors d’oeuvres.

“What was new this year was we had 11 of our innovators that we’ve been working with on hand displaying their products and business models,” Ricco said. “The idea is to further solidify with the community what we do and what we’re about.”

Ricco said the hub is looking to the future by seeking to strengthen its partnerships with groups like the Grand Rapids Inventors Network, The Michigan Inventors Network and the Muskegon Inventors Network.

“They work with early-stage clients, and there’s a lot of overlap with what we do,” he said.

The Muskegon Innovation Hub leaders agree the hub has no shortage of ways to get involved, from visiting during business hours to setting up meetings and filling out the online inquiry form.

“We’ll meet with anyone, even if it’s a business that might not be the right fit for us,” Ricco said. “We can make introductions and get them connected to where they need to go.”

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