Innovate Marquette wants to transform the U.P.'s entrepreneurial economy

Innovate Marquette, Michigan’s newest MEDC-chartered SmartZone business incubator (and the U.P.’s third, after MTEC Houghton and the Sault Ste. Marie SmartZone), officially opened for business last year at Northern Michigan University. It’s helmed by Ray Johnson, a high-profile technology executive who helped found and scale a Minnesota-based semiconductor company and a Boulder, Colorado-based battery manufacturer. Both firms were eventually sold to larger companies at impressive valuations.

After exiting his second startup, Johnson took a teaching position at University of Colorado-Boulder, diving with abandon into his adopted hometown’s vibrant startup scene. His work with ambitious Front Range entrepreneurs convinced him that the region’s conditions could be replicated in other beautiful areas with existing resources and support for technology entrepreneurs. When the opportunity to lead Innovate Marquette came on his radar, he pounced.

“Having played a role in developing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Boulder-Denver area, I felt I could contribute to the same growth here in the central U.P.,” says Johnson. “I know what it takes to make that happen.”

According to Johnson, he sold Innovate Marquette as a “10 to 15 year process.” Early backers were surprisingly receptive to his long-term vision. The region’s two other SmartZones were key selling points; Johnson regularly visits and works out of Houghton, though his time there is likely to decrease as Innovate Marquette ramps up.

Johnson’s efforts are already paying off. Less than a year after opening, Innovate Marquette already has two partner companies.

Neuro Trainer bills itself as the world’s first “brain gym” -- a cognitive, virtual reality-based trainer for high-performance athletes who want to keep their minds as sharp as their bodies. It’s drawing early comparisons to Lumosity, an ascendant brain-training business for more sedentary types, and could one day be table stakes for professional and collegiate teams looking for a leg up on the competition.

906 Engineering, meanwhile, is “Marquette’s premier mechanical engineering and hydraulic service provider.” According to Innovate Marquette’s website, the company focuses on “highly efficient, cost effective, and reliable technologies,” including snow plow control systems, hydraulic valves and pumps, and low-voltage power systems.

Johnson is cagey about future partnerships, but he’s positively stoked about the potential. One big reason is the appropriately dubbed Innovation Shore Angel Network (ISAN), Innovate Marquette’s angel investor group. ISAN puts startups applying for funding through a four-stage vetting and validation process, and then presents successful candidates to its pre-screened member investors. It’s a win-win: Entrepreneurs get access to early-stage capital and a deep network of mentors and future investors, while investors get in on the ground floor of potentially game-changing business concepts.

More broadly, Innovate Marquette gives partner companies “all the key pieces for building a successful company,” says Johnson. Those include basic education and training -- what Johnson calls “Startup 101” -- along with intellectual property protection assistance, market research and competitive analyses, technology mining and assessments, assistance with Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR), pitch building, and much more.

Innovate Marquette also works with Invent at NMU, a student-run business accelerator that walks entrepreneurs -- students and non-students alike -- through idea validation, prototyping, patenting, and the like.

“Invent at NMU is a unique asset that many don’t realize the Marquette community has,” says Johnson. “It’s something I’d like to see scaled up and taken around the state.”

To hear Johnson tell it, this isn’t just an issue for U.P. entrepreneurs. It’s vital to the region’s economic future -- and, by extension, the state’s and country’s, too.

“Over the past generation, companies less than five years old have been responsible for the lion’s share of net new private sector job creation,” says Johnson. “Our job is to keep that trend intact by empowering innovators, mentors and investors to build successful companies right here in Marquette.”

Sure, it might be a few years before Marquette rivals Boulder as an entrepreneurial mecca. But that shouldn’t stop the central U.P.’s idea men and women from dreaming about what’s possible -- and then willing their vision to life.

Brian Martucci is a freelance writer. 

Photos by Sam Eggleston. 
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