When Heather Jose floated her idea for a weighted ball cap to help neuro-diverse patients focus and remain calm, friends and family told her she should take the idea to ABC’s hit show Shark Tank. Instead, Jose ended up at Central Michigan University Research Corporation, a co-working space and business accelerator on the south side of CMU’s campus in the heart of Isabella County. Today, she tells people there’s a shark tank right in their backyard.
“Why go all that way? We have a Shark Tank right here. Investors? They have those,” Jose says of CMURC, “Business connections? They can help you with that too!”
Last year alone, CMURC provided support to 366 companies and helped launch 39 new businesses. CEO Erin Strang says the activity created 147 new jobs and accounted for more than 4.5 million dollars in capital raised. “Our biggest impact is connecting people to people,” says Strang. “We’re here to help the community evolve and develop their innovative ideas."
From open-plan co-working spaces and first-come, first-served conference rooms that run $150 per month to dedicated offices with a lock and key billed by the square foot, CMURC’s facility is home to a constantly-evolving community of local entrepreneurs and their businesses. There’s even a membership plan for professionals who offer services to entrepreneurs and small business owners. “A tax accountant or a lawyer may want to come in and rent one of our offices every Tuesday for the whole year,” said Strang, “We can make that happen, and it’s really helpful to our entrepreneurs to know there’s someone here who can walk them through their taxes every week or a lawyer to answer questions about business structure and liability.”
In fact, CMURC’S ability to serve entrepreneurs in an all-inclusive manner is a hot topic among the center’s success stories. Jason Hughes has called Isabella County home since the mid-1990s when he moved from the state’s upper peninsula for a job on the area’s oil fields. Hughes’ big idea came to him while traveling for that work, and he credits CMURC with helping him translate an idea into reality. “They’re right there with you every step of the way,” says Hughes. “I’m a guy who might think starting a business means filing an LLC and you’re done. You can go sell. But there’s so much more to it. I wouldn’t have gotten through it all without them.”
Hughes’ RenoRage, a clever combination of the words renovated and storage, specializes in turning steel storage and shipping containers into usable, livable spaces. “I saw these things being repurposed in big cities,” says Hughes gesturing to his first fully renovated set of containers, “and i just thought, you know, that would go over really well in Mt. Pleasant.”
And it has. Hughes says interest in the renovated containers is strong. He’s been in contact with people interested in using the spaces he creates for everything from a modern take on lakeside vacation cottages to miniature storefronts. As for Hughes his vision for the company includes all of that, plus an arm dedicated to helping veterans. “These things are so affordable, and they can be adapted to just about anything. I’d like to see them used to help veterans while they’re getting on their feet.”
For now, Hughes’ first set of containers live in the CMURC parking lot. There, Jose used them to host her first product launch earlier this month. Surrounded by family and friends, she Theramazing, LLC introduced its weighted ball cap to a group of regional journalists, interested locals, and business associates.
“As an occupational therapist it’s frustrating because the market for tools to do our job has been stagnant for a very long time,” says Jose, “We have a lot more knowledge, but we don’t have updated tools.” Helping kids whose brains function a little different than their peers is a primary focus for Jose who says existing tools like weighted blankets and vests are both too expensive and too cumbersome. “They can make a kid feel out of place. I was looking for a solution that would allow them to blend in a little more. They already stand out. Plus the investment is much smaller with a cap. People can afford to experiment and find something that works for them.”
CMURC’s broad range of support has been integral to Jose, too. “It takes a lot to bring a product to market,” she says, “and they’re so adaptable they’re able to help you through every bump along the way.”
Getting the weights in the cap just right was a long and finicky process and Jose credits the team at CMURC for keeping her going. “Knowing they’re there and ready to help you adapt to the next step makes it easier,” she says. And she’s not the only one who has relied on the adaptability and community CMURC provides.
If you go back to the very beginning, Keith Palmer founded what has since become ChargeOver, a web-based recurring billing service, on accident. Palmer was running another small business at the time. Frustrated with the tedious process of manual billing and a dearth of solutions that fit his needs, Palmer put his tech skills to good use creating software to automate his invoicing. Soon, he was fielding questions about his solution from other business owners and friends. With a clear opportunity to scale the solution up for others, Palmer ended up spinning off the billing software into its own entity. Today, he co-owns and runs ChargeOver with Ryan Bantz who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Early on Palmer worked out of his house, but the drawbacks to operating from his living room quickly outweighed the benefits. “With a web-based service and Ryan and I being in different cities we really didn’t need a building of our own,” says Palmer, “but having employees in my house first thing every morning wasn’t the best solution either.”
By utilizing CMURC’s co-working spaces and conference rooms, Palmer has been able to build his business without sacrificing his home life and sanity in the process. The company now helps businesses around the world process invoices in more than twenty-four currencies and Palmer sees only growth on the horizon.
Strang agrees. In addition to growth for businesses already operating out of CMURC, Strang and her team choose four of the best new business ideas presented to them each month and admit their founders to the business accelerator program. "This could be you," she says, "you can live your dream and passion in Isabella County every day.”