How an ‘open for business’ approach is growing an innovation district in Sterling Heights

When Josephine Attisha and Anna Orias were faced with a choice between Oakland, California, and Sterling Heights, Michigan for their new business, they say it was a no-brainer. 

The duo officially incorporated Lucidity Grants in July, and have opened a space in the Velocity Center, an innovation hub on Van Dyke Road. They describe themselves as “artivists”, applying creative thinking and tech savvy to the nonprofit sector to better organize grant writing and funding. Despite Orias being based in Silicon Valley and surrounded by technology and innovation, she says it’s very difficult for a young company to get off the ground there. 

“Unless you are in a position of power,” says Attisha. “And you need to be a multibillionaire,” adds Orias. “This is my fourth business, the first were all in Oakland, and I have all these connections and am in the tech capital and yet you have to fight tooth and nail, it’s hyper-competitive.”

For them, Sterling Heights provided what Silicon Valley could not: Opportunity. Attisha grew up in the area and it made sense for her to be able to connect to grassroots organizations here in Michigan. But it wasn’t until they visited the Velocity Center, and connected with the city leadership, that the puzzle pieces fell into place.

“We felt like Sterling Heights was really welcoming, really open for business,” says Orias. “We were granted free office space for six months, that’s absolutely unheard of, we were granted money to help with our branding.” 

Josephine Attisha is excited to have a space at Sterling Heights' Velocity center for her business, Lucidity Grants, which she runs with co-founder Anna Orias. Photo: Joe Powers / Insitu Photography.

Now Attisha is set up with office space in the Velocity Center, where she works remotely with Orias, but can welcome clients at a physical space. The pair identify as “disruptors” and enjoy cutting through the red tape that nonprofits face when looking for innovative solutions.

Those projects involve working with groups like Sole Loved, a charity that focuses on getting shoes to children who need them, and organizations like Trucks with Room to Spare, which aims to better utilize trucking routes for disaster relief. “When they have extra room in their trucks, they take emergency supplies across the country and they have said ‘if we can just find funding, imagine the impact we could have,'" says Attisha. 

Orias and Attisha are working towards C-Corp status for Lucidity Grants, currently a for-profit, but mission-focused, company. “We feel really strongly about our mission,” says Orias. “We want to hit the ground and offer [our] services straight away, avoiding the behemoth bureaucracy that happens elsewhere. Sterling Heights said ‘let’s see how we can make that happen."

The innovation district makes for a good fit for entrepreneurs seeking a new way of approaching how business is done, and more diversity in leadership, says the pair.  

“I see change,” says Attisha. “Sterling Heights is open to women and small businesses. You’re seeing people from diverse backgrounds and skills, not just automakers, not just the Big Three, which have a huge presence here. People bring different perspectives.”

“The city has big plans, and Lucidity is very happy to hop on board at this turning point. It’s really coming into itself, the melting pot is coming alive.”

Sterling Heights Economic Advisor Luke Bonner sees the potential for an innovation district. Photo: Joe Powers /Insitu Photography.

A strategic move

Orias and Attisha’s experience comes as no surprise to Sterling Heights economic advisor Luke Bonner, or to city manager Mark Vanderpool. It’s exactly what the city has been striving for in its development of a dedicated innovation district. 

Historically a manufacturing base for the automotive industry, Sterling Heights has had to repeatedly adapt to continue to grow. “There's been a massive shift,” says Bonner. “The companies that are still here today are doing some amazing things — they have changed their business models.”

One company spotting a need in the community is Senior Home Solutions, a building company that started in 2013 after CEO Matthew Welch watched his grandmother struggle to care for his grandfather in their home. 

“I realized some of the challenges this presented,” he says. “I also knew how important it was to my grandparents to extend the time that they could live in their own home to as long as possible. We have been blessed to have our business grow exponentially through the home access ramp rental and purchase programs.”

Bonner points to other examples of innovation, such as the partnership between Mayco International, a Tier 1 automotive component company, and LyteHorse, a Canadian electric vehicle company, to develop electric stand-up ATVs. HTI Cybernetics is another business expanding its footprint in the city, with a new Merrill Road building announced last month to meet changes in the manufacturing industry.

“The automotive industry is entering a historic time as the transition to electric vehicles and other emissions-free technology rapidly accelerates,” says Eric McAlexander, HTI Cybernetics CEO. Dennis Sims, Vice President of Operations adds that as a major manufacturing hub, Sterling Heights is an "ideal location" to connect with customers and a large network of industry experts.

The city hopes to capitalize on those geographic and demographic advantages. “Our workforce is fantastic, our location is fantastic,” says Bonner. “We are very competitive with the price of real estate and price of business, the quality of life in the city — those are all really big things for people to consider when they think about when to go.”
 
“We have invested about $450 million in eight years on road projects,” says Vanderpool. “We are about halfway done, in addition to $50 million in parks and quality of life amenities, plus $45 million in buildings. That’s half a billion in visible infrastructure, people notice it.” 

“In our recent community survey, we scored very highly,” he says. “Over 80% have a favorable image, these are residents of course, and take pride in where they live, so maybe they’re biased, but that’s way above the regional average.” 

Sterling Heights City Manager Mark Vanderpool witnesses the impact investing in the community has on attracting businesses and talent to the region. Photo: Joe Powers / Insitu Photography

Stumbling blocks

Building an innovative region is not without its challenges. 

“On the talent side it been nearly impossible for companies to hire people,” says Bonner. “From manufacturing to restaurants, and when they do they are just poaching from other companies, that’s not economic growth — that the biggest problem, nationally.” 

“The only thing that has helped, are companies that are focusing on the long term, rather than band-aid solutions, this is an ongoing narrative — talent has been the number one priority for years and there’s been little done to address it.” 

Solving the issue will take time, says Bonner. “Some companies are focusing on high schools, building bridges with internships and a legacy of loyalty. It’s a more patient approach.” 

It’s also one of the reasons for pushing an innovation district and hubs like Velocity, with a focus on fostering, and keeping talent.

“For us, it was simple — that’s what we are here for,” says Bonner. “We wanted a co-working lab space, we didn’t want to be an expense. When companies are starting out they are really funding themselves, so we help them with finding mentors in the same technology, looking at business plans, and provide feedback for their pitch deck.”



Bringing innovators under one roof
 
The Velocity hub is a jewel in the city’s offerings to new businesses, providing office space, conference rooms, a podcast studio, an outdoor courtyard, and surrounding outdoor space. These spaces have been used by the U.S. Army for off-site training, Ground Vehicle Systems Company for a demonstration of a new Jeep, Women in Defense for educational programming, and 313 Presents for industry presentations.
 
“Velocity recognized that entrepreneurs and innovators need a great team to connect them to the resources necessary in pursuit of growing a business,” said Kathryn Quell, Building Services Specialist for Velocity Center. 
 
Last month, the city cut the ribbon for a new co-working space at the center, called Element. Created to round out the current business incubation and acceleration services, the concept is to support entrepreneurs who may not need dedicated office space yet but are still looking for the support services and connections that can help them quickly take their business to the next stage. 
 
“We’re proud of Element and the fresh, professional, and state-of-the-art space it represents. It’s just one more way we continue our strong history of support to our local business community,” says Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor. “As an innovative community, it just makes sense that we continue to roll out services and programming like these that focus on technology development in our region, right here in the Sterling Heights Innovation District.”

Chinaka Njoku was searching for a base from which to launch his tech start up, TASEN Inc., and found support in Sterling Heights. Photo: Joe Powers / Insitu Photography.

Meeting innovators where they are
 
For Chinaka Njoku, Velocity “feels like home.” The founder of TASEN INC. needed a place to launch his business, which is launching a new technology that will see educational institutes and universities more easily access transcripts and diplomas from overseas. 
 
It was a problem Njoku encountered himself when he moved from Nigeria. He needed his high school diploma to apply for employment, citizenship, and further education, but the principal of his former school only had hard copies of the 1994 certificate, and no resources to get a digital copy to him. Njoku decided to do something about the system. 
 
“I wondered: How can we turn this into an opportunity?” says Njoku. “ Others also encounter these challenges.”
 
He is now working with a team of software engineering students at Grand Valley State University to develop the software to better serve education and academic institutions both in Africa and North America, and he hopes to create jobs in both continents.
 
“We are working on a website launch, we are using it to get colleges and universities in Africa to sign up to the project," he says. "We have 20 schools from Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, South Africa, Malawi, and some interest from Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon.” 
 
“The next step is working with people to develop it in the French language as well.” 
 
But before any of this could happen, Njoku needed a space to get his business up and running. 
 
“I was trying to gain traction around 2019, and I had trouble with it,” he explains. “I reached out to Mount Clemens, but they were concerned about the funding and sponsorship. Port Huron Smart Zone allowed me to present to their EDA and they put me in their incubator, but I live in Macomb, so I started looking around.”
 
“One day I drove to Velocity, and rang the doorbell — Kate [Quell] came out and luckily for me Luke Bonner was there that day, he was heading out for lunch and asked if I could come back — I went to the library, and polished up my pitch. [Bonner] was very gracious, he told me about the program, he made all these connections, there's nothing I have requested that has been impossible.”
 
Bonner jokes that Njoku was hanging around Velocity until someone let him in, but Njoku insists the mentorship he was offered made all the difference. “One of the first things he said to me is ‘I’ve been where you are, you're going to have high days and low days but don't let the passion you have die. We will stand behind you.'"
 
Now, Njoku describes Velocity as a “one-stop-shop” where he can network, connect with other industry professionals, and says having the city leadership and innovators believe in his work has given him confidence in his work.

“The way the Velocity Center is operating, it’s what any upcoming entrepreneur needs. I have learned a lot about who I am, what I am doing, and about where I am going.” 

Chinaka Njoku is excited about the future for his company, TASEN Inc. Photo: Joe Powers / Insitu Photography
Metromode is partnering with the City of Sterling Heights to identify and capture the story of the Sterling Heights Innovation District, and the way it is shaping the identity of the city. 

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at kroff@issuemediagroup.com
Signup for Email Alerts