MidMichigan Innovation Center helps ignite region's economic engine

Two years ago, Ed Shaffer launched his high-tech battery technology company out of his garage with money from his 401(k). Today, his company is an award-winning multi-million-dollar company with six employees, and 1,000 feet of laboratory space.

Advanced Battery Concepts, which just won the state's top award for the emerging companies best business plan category in the Great Lakes Entrepreneur's Quest competition, is one of 21 startups housed in the MidMichigan Innovation Center, a Midland-based business incubator. The center provides entrepreneurs like Shaffer with all the tools they need to launch and run successful companies -- everything from providing access to financing and business coaching to conference room space and office computers with IT support.

"There's no way we'd be where we are today without MMIC (MidMichigan Innovation Center)," says Shaffer. After a pause, Shaffer corrects himself. "Actually, you know where I'd be? I'd be out of Michigan. I'd be in another state."

The state needs more building blocks like MidMichigan Innovation Center, he says. Shaffer says that when he decided to leave his business development manager position and 19-year career at Dow Chemical two years ago, he had his idea, a little money, technical expertise, and "a pretty big garage." What he didn't have was the know-how, the capital, and the resources to turn his fledgling startup into the multi-million company that it is today.

"I didn't have a lot of money," he says, "but I had a lot of needs."

Soon after starting his business, Shaffer found out about the MidMichigan Innovation Center and decided to become a virtual tenant. This allowed him to continue operating on a low budget out of his garage, but gave him access to the coaching, guidance, and conference room space available there. With access to those resources, Shaffer was able to focus on building his company, which has developed a battery electrode technology called GreenSeal™ that enhances the performance of lead-acid batteries, and lowers the cost of operating them.  

Finally, with help from Bill Moneypenny -- CEO of the MidMichigan Innovation Center -- Shaffer was able to take the next big step with his business.

"Bill facilitated the move from the garage to the lab," Shaffer says.

Moneypenny, a former plant manager at Dow Chemical, is an unassuming presence at the MidMichigan Innovation Center. But he is actually the nerve center, business coach, team leader, financial advisor, meeting facilitator, motivational speaker, business trainer, and landlord for the whole operation, which sits at the edge of town on East Ashman Street in Dow Chemical's former agricultural building. Dow was going to bulldoze the 100,000-square-foot building several years back, but Moneypenny rescued it, too. Five years later, it's humming with the activity of 21 on-site startup companies and 12 virtual tenants.

The business incubator was itself a startup company and spinoff of MITECH+, a regional workforce development company focused on expanding the role of technical education in the mid-Michigan region. Moneypenny is CEO of MITECH+. And he was also instrumental in the formation of the Blue Water Angels, a Midland-based network of more than 30 high-net-worth individuals and organizations interested in investing in promising startups like Advanced Battery Concepts.  

Walking through the MidMichigan Innovation Center is akin to walking through Thomas Edison's idea factory at Menlo Park. Some of the startups there are on the verge of hitting it big. Others already have. One company -- Caltech Industries, which manufactures hospital and commercial disinfectants was bought by Clorox earlier this year.

There's also Serenus Johnson Portables, a company that manufactures portable buildings and emergency facilities for hospitals and other companies. The company manufactured some buildings that were used by emergency medical services in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Another company called Gantec Advance produces natural products that keeps bugs off plants and helps them grow two to four times their normal size. Then there's Elpis Technologies, which manufactures pigments for paints, coatings, resins, epoxy, and cements. The company -- run by a couple of young Northwood University grads -- has caught the attention of Sherwin-Williams.

And situated in the middle of all the startups is a room called "The Hatchery," office space for enterprising students from Northwood University.

To locate at MidMichigan Innovation Center, entrepreneurs have to go through an application process, Moneypenny says. "We're looking for someone who's going to grow a company and create 10, 20, 30 jobs in the future." After about three years of leasing space at the center, the startup companies "graduate" and then move off site to make room for more new ventures.

During the period before "graduation," the startup companies have the kind of access to investors, capital, technical expertise, business acumen and experienced mentors that would be the envy of any enterprising entrepreneur. Dow Chemical not only leases the building to Moneypenny at a low cost, but it also provides people with access to some of the brightest minds in the business through ongoing coaching and mentorship.

Dow's involvement in the whole project is greater than meets the eye. In fact, the idea originated with the late Ted Doan -- grandson of company founder Herbert H. Dow -- a venture capitalist, and former member of MITECH+. He wanted to make laboratory space available to help jumpstart the formation of companies like the one his grandfather started. So Doane and several others dialed Moneypenny up, and asked him to run the operation.

Moneypenny shares Doan's belief in the importance of nurturing business ventures. It is, he says, what led to the the formation of Dow, Ford, General Motors, and all the companies that put Mid Michigan on the map. "All of those companies," he says, "were started by entrepreneurs."

There are a lot of entrepreneurs in the region, Moneypenny says, but they don't always have the support they need to turn their ideas and concepts into viable businesses. "They're the key to the future growth and the future economic prosperity of our region."

When Moneypenny always asks them what they need, "the answer is always the same," he says. "'Find me money.' The first thing they need is capital."

Tenants have the opportunity to tap BlueWater Angel members for help with drawing up business plans, he says. Some BlueWater Angels also are board members for some of the startup companies, and act as consultants to the tenants at the center. Through various training sessions, and "pitch" nights, entrepreneurs also have the opportunity to learn how to pitch a business plan to investors to obtain financing for their businesses.

The MidMichigan Innovation Center also works with Midland Tomorrow, the area's economic development organization, on identifying all opportunities and resources, including financing opportunities through state and federal grants.

By the beginning of 2010, startup companies at the MidMichigan Innovation Center were responsible for creating about 149 jobs, and generating a payroll of about $6.7 million in the community.

In 2009, Midland won an award from the University of Michigan-Dearborn College of Business as one of the "top performers in attracting and retaining entrepreneurial firms" in the state, says Scott Walker, executive director of Midland Tomorrow. The MidMichigan Innovation Center has played a large part in helping to foster a culture of innovation and vitality in Midland.

It's one of the organizations helping to "build up that entrepreneurial capacity" in the Mid Michigan region, Walker says.

Photo captions:

Bill Moneypenny, CEO of MidMichigan Innovation Center in Midland, sits in the lobby of the Midland-based facility.

One of the conference rooms in the MidMichigan Innovation Center changes colors through a unique lighting system throughout the day.

Ed Shaffer, owner of Advanced Battery Concepts, is one of several tenants at the MidMichigan Innovation Center.

Paint samples -- part of the ongoing research and development process -- sit in the laboratory at Elpis Technologies at the MidMichigan Innovation Center.

A cross-section of a portable structure under development at Serenus Johnson Portables, a tenant company at the MidMichigan Innovation Center.

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