Tech Council marks decade of growth for West Michigan's tech sector

The Tech Council is celebrating 10 years of driving growth in West Michigan's tech sector with a vision to make Greater Grand Rapids a major tech hub in the Midwest. This begins with a strategy to grow the tech sector to 10% of regional employment with 20,000 new tech jobs over the next 10 years.

Shawn Crowley, co-CEO at Atomic Object, was one of the first to realize that tech was key to the region’s future economic development.

The Grand Rapids tech firm was doing extensive work outside Michigan, especially in San Francisco, when Crowley, along with Mike Marsiglia and Carl Erickson, who co-founded Atomic Object and retired a year and a half ago, recognized the need for economic development in the region's nascent tech sector. Crowley and Marsiglio’s visionary work was recognized when the two were named finalists by the business and accounting firm Ernst & Young for its  Entrepreneur of the Year 2024 Michigan and Northwest Ohio Award.

The emphasis had traditionally been on attracting manufacturers because of their potential for local job creation. However, Crowley says, "We're nationally competitive, excellent at what we do, and pulling in substantial revenue from outside the region. So, what could we do to build regional awareness of our engineering and software technology capabilities?"

Starting from the ground floor

The trio approached The Right Place, an economic development organization Crowley became familiar with in 2012 when Atomic Object signed on as an investor. At that time, there were no other tech companies in its directory, making Atomic Object stand out locally.

The Technology Council of West Michigan started with a few professional services firms and consultancies pooling funds for a marketing plan to highlight the region nationally. A decade later, the council boasts over 70 members. 

“We now include all companies using technology for strategic growth,” Crowley says.

The Tech Council is open to companies located in West Michigan or that have operations in the region. This includes software technology firms, professional services companies, regional enterprises innovating through software, and companies using software in operations or manufacturing for a strategic advantage.

The Tech Council collaborates with the Center-West Manufacturers Council and MiDevice. In 2021, shortly after Randy Thelen took over as CEO of The Right Place, he began amplifying the Tech Council's work. 

“Randy launched the tech strategy work,” says Crowley, adding that Gentex CEO and current Right Place Chair Steve Downing stepped up to support the effort, resulting in the Zeeland-based high-tech manufacturing firm opening a downtown Grand Rapids location to foster technological innovation.

"Gentex is a long-time supporter of The Right Place Program and its Tech Council initiatives," said Craig Piersma, Gentex vice president of marketing. "It's important for technology companies to collaborate, share, and network so we can collectively make West Michigan a leader in digital technologies."

‘Create an ecosystem’

The Right Place aims to add 20,000 new tech jobs in 10 years. Two years into that goal, the region has added 3,400 jobs. The Tech Council also hosts practitioner meetups, bringing together leaders from local enterprises, startups, and investment firms to foster an ecosystem of innovation.

“What we really wanted was to create an ecosystem,” Crowley says, reflecting on the collaborative spirit seen in places like the San Francisco Bay Area. “It's important to set the table and focus on the right conversations.”

Last year’s Tech Week Grand Rapids, held during Art Prize in September, featured a keynote by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell. This year, Stephen J. Dubner, author of “Freakonomics,” will deliver the keynote. Atomic Object will be among the hosts for Tech Week events.

New Tech Council member Chip LaFleur, owner of LaFleur Marketing, says he appreciates the Tech Council's focus on driving business investment in West Michigan.

“They are doing it cooperatively,” says LaFleur, whose firm specializes in marketing services for law firms, financial services, technology companies, and other professional services. LaFleur Marketing got its start a decade ago with clients in Silicon Valley.

“We’ve had a positive experience with Bay Area companies, offering the same standard of service at a fraction of the cost,” says LaFleur, who believes a bigger tech ecosystem in West Michigan will enhance his firm's service to clients. “Partnering with other tech providers here makes sense. The relationships through the Tech Council help us attract a larger group to solve problems.”

Problem-solving with peers 

LaFleur commends the Tech Council for fostering open dialogue among competitors and creating opportunities for recent tech graduates in West Michigan. 

“If we’re solving problems for our clients, we need the tools through research and learning from our peers,” he says.

“Organizations can test new technology and bring innovations to market. I look forward to seeing how others solve similar problems and how we can plug in to solve problems for our clients.” 

Jennifer Wangler, vice president of technology at The Right Place and director of The Technology Council, also emphasized the benefits of collaboration and conversation.

“In addition to executing on the 10-Year Tech Strategy,  the Council offers a forum where business leaders can connect with peers to discuss challenges and share best practices in an evolving business landscape,” explains Wangler. “Our work has shown that leaders desire those more curated spaces to have those difficult discussions that can’t always be shared with staff and shouldn’t go home.  I truly appreciate the collaborative nature of our members and value the spirit of cooperation. It’s our secret sauce.

“Leadership can be a very lonely space. It's also a very complicated space lately because of everything that's happening, both locally in business and in geopolitics. So having a space for leaders to be able to come together and discuss challenges and share success stories or best practices has proven to be a special thing in West Michigan.”

The Tech Council also aligns well with the vision and the mission of The Right Place in its efforts to attract businesses.

“As we are out talking to companies or at trade shows about the great ecosystem and the community that we have here in West Michigan,” Wangler says, “what better way to demonstrate that than to have this community available for our visitors, to be able to come and see firsthand what we're talking about?” 

Teaming up with higher ed

Tech Week Grand Rapids, which returns for its third year Sept. 16-21, came out of The Right Place and The Tech Council’s 10-year tech strategy. Additionally, the focus is on working with educational partners from K-12 to universities to build the next generation of the talent pipeline by helping to build the curriculum that reflects the skills that are needed.

“We have 17 colleges and universities within a 10-mile radius. We've worked collaboratively with all of those universities at some level,” Wangler says, noting Grand Valley State University recently opened a School of Computing that, along with its tech center, named Blue Dot Lab, will partner with the Tech Council.

Grand Rapids Community College is one of 15 colleges in the nation selected for financial support to expand computer labs and to be part of an artificial intelligence incubator network program to better train students for careers in the emerging field.

The Tech Council's efforts are transforming Grand Rapids into a burgeoning tech hub, proving that collaboration and strategic growth can drive significant economic development.

This series seeks to highlight tech organizations and employers throughout Greater Grand Rapids that are delivering innovative programs and addressing talent pipeline challenges and seeking to develop, attract and retain quality talent in West Michigan. This series is underwritten by The Right Place.
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