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Grand Valley State University rebranded the former Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center as the Muskegon Innovation Hub in an attempt to better market the facility and attract new tenants and clients with programs and services.  Grand Valley State University rebranded the former Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center as the Muskegon Innovation Hub in an attempt to better market the facility and attract new tenants and clients with programs and services. Courtesy Photo

Muskegon Innovation Hub boosts programs, services for startups focused on innovation

BY Sunday, May 28, 2017 04:13pm

A year after diversifying its focus beyond alternative energy technology, Muskegon Innovation Hub continues to find ways to reach and serve both entrepreneurs and the greater community. 

In April, the business innovation center hosted the 321 GO! retail business plan competition in partnership with Downtown Muskegon Now and this month launched Marketing Mondays to bring various business owners and entrepreneurs together over lunch. 

It also serves as the base for Muskegon Inventors Network meetings. As well, entrepreneurs can sign up for CoLaunch, a collaborative small business workspace with various rental options and tiered membership structures.

About a year ago, Grand Valley State University’s former Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC) rebranded as Muskegon Innovation Hub. Located near downtown along Muskegon Lake, the 25,000-square-foot LEED-certified facility opened in 2003 with a focus on clean and renewable energy research, technology and business incubator space. 

MAREC embarked on a strategic plan in 2013 to better market the facility and attract new tenants and clients, and the new name better reflects its programs and services, according to officials. 

The Hub continues exploring ways to widen its support services and programs for startups, small businesses, entrepreneurs and innovation in all industries, said Director Kevin Ricco. While clean energy technology and research remains part of its focus, the Hub now has clients in the tech, manufacturing and lifestyle sectors.

“I think our change has had a very positive impact for the entrepreneurs and small businesses in the Muskegon area,” he said. “The number of engagements with new and potential clients has more than doubled since we have changed our name and general focus.”

The Muskegon Innovation Hub is dedicated to business incubation, a place where emerging entrepreneurs can receive support from pitch to patent to production, find low-cost shared workspace and a synergistic work environment, and gain access to startup capital and other funding resources.  

Besides serving clients who rent on-site space, staffers provide coaching, funding and networking opportunities for clients, who pay varying fees for services. An initial consultation is free, and sometimes the Hub’s staff directs business owners to other resources in the community, Ricco said.

“We’re open anytime for people to see what we’re about,” he said. “There’s less of a demand for actually coming in and leasing space, but there’s still that need for coaching, mentoring and funding. We fill that void through our affiliate client program. It’s very individualized, personalized service.”

The Hub has become a resource for other economic development partners in the region’s business ecosystem, as evidenced by the number of collaborative opportunities over the past year involving Start Garden, the Muskegon Angels, the Business Resource Team, the Michigan Inventors Coalition, the Muskegon Inventors Network and others.

The Hub helped Downtown Muskegon Now organize the 321 GO! retail business pitch competition as well as hosted the event. 

“That’s really an example of some of the collaborative opportunities that we’ve not been able to be a part of in the past,” Ricco said. “We don’t work much with retail entrepreneurs, but the innovation of creating that pitch model, now we’ve got this model. It can really be a model that can be used anywhere.”

The pitch event was well-attended and the Hub will provide support services to the pitch winner, Jodi McClain and her East of Eden Wellness Spa. She received a prize package including six months free rent in Midtown Muskegon and legal, accounting, marketing, architectural and design services.

“Their expertise is very much critical to knowing how to put together a pitch competition like this,” said Dave Alexander, executive director of Downtown Muskegon Now. “They were able to give us a lot of technical support both with the event and now that we have a winner moving forward.”

Besides the Hub’s services for entrepreneurs, it’s also a meeting space for other organizations in the community. The Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce hosted an Economic Summit there earlier this month, and SCORE Muskegon has offered programs and workshops at the Hub in the past. 

“The rebranding and refocusing, the ability for people to have co-shared workspace through the facility is very much a plus for downtown Muskegon and the overall lakeshore community,” Alexander said. “There are many times the community gathers there for very important collaborations and meetings.”

The Muskegon Inventors Network returned to the Hub in April and its first meeting attracted 36 people, said Joe Finkler, the group’s president and head of the Michigan Inventors Coalition. The group meets at 6 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of every month and assists members to further their creative ideas.

“It’s a place where inventors, marketers and creative people can learn and network,” Finkler said. “Our group welcomes marketers, business owners, consultants, and anybody with an idea or an invention.”

Muskegon members were driving to Grand Rapids for meetings, but the Hub’s staff offers experience, expertise and access to possible funding, mentoring and networking.

“It’s very accommodating for everyone, great views and resources where an inventor can actually work out of there,” he said. “We try to put the inventor on a template to get them free resources or the right resources to get their concept to reality.”

Other recent events for both entrepreneurs and the community included 5x5 Nights, where entrepreneurs can pitch an idea for the chance to win funding and other support, and Marketing Mondays. The luncheon program takes place the third Monday of each month and provides practical tips to help entrepreneurs grow their business. Cost is $10 and includes lunch. 

There’s also daily activity at the Hub through CoLaunch, and it’s spurring collaborations between entrepreneurs and small business owners, Ricco said. They can choose set office hours or 24-7 office rental with a flexible pricing model. 

The Hub’s team has helped clients apply for and receive money through Michigan’s Business Accelerator Fund, reached more than 1,000 individuals through various programming, and helped several companies expand. It’s also assisted businesses through the intellectual property process involving new patents, copyrights or trademarks, with more than 30 being issued.

“We’re just going to continue to roll out programs that are applicable to the early stage businesses, to inventors, to entrepreneurs to make sure we’re meeting the needs of the community as a whole,” Ricco said. 

Upcoming Events at Muskegon Innovation Hub

  • Marketing Mondays: “Setting Goals and Measuring Success” will help entrepreneurs and small business owners understand why social media goals are valuable and how to evaluate success and failure. 
  • Presenter: Chad Lawie, owner of Wowie!
  • Monday, June 19, noon-1 p.m.
  • Cost: $10 per person, includes lunch
  • Info: [email protected]
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