Sault Ste. Marie’s SmartZone is bridging the gap between new ideas and business practice

It can be a big leap from a bright business idea to a fully-fledged, functioning business. So the Sault Ste. Marie SmartZone is adding a new stepping stone, besides the traditional startup incubator, to help new businesses land on their feet.

The SmartZone is preparing to build a new facility to provide business training for entrepreneurs, from filling out paperwork to running a production line.

Currently, clients can take advantage of Lake Superior State University's Product Development Center to create working models of their idea, while the Soo Industrial Incubator provides a starting location. Incubators are typically buildings that provide low-cost space to help a business get on its feet so it can eventually buy or build its own facility.

Now, plans for a new technology accelerator or "breeder" building will ensure entrepreneurs are ready to move into the incubator and become thriving businesses in the community.

"By developing this concept of the breeder, we are basically fitting in the missing link between the innovative product and a business being partially grown up in the incubator," explains James Hendricks, director of the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation.

The SmartZone idea is based on collaboration among universities, industry, governments, and other community institutions. Each SmartZone -- the Sault Ste. Marie center is one of two in the U.P. and one of 15 in the state -- encourages technology-based businesses and jobs.

In Sault Ste. Marie, the SmartZone focuses on business development and success. "We don't want someone to walk in with a prototype, throw them in the incubator and have them fail," says Eric Becks, president and CEO of SSMart Inc, which runs the SmartZone.

To that end, they've made a grant request to the Economic Development Administration for $1.3 million for the creation of the breeder building. However, the SmartZone plans to go ahead with construction in 2011 even without this contribution, because of the long-term benefits.

Unlike an incubator, the breeder will provide training and a more temporary space to jumpstart a business. The project cost for the proposed 16,000-square-foot building is about $2.65 million. The breeder is predicted to create 55 jobs every four years, based on previous manufacturing development in Sault Ste. Marie, and on experiences at the other U.P. SmartZone, at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.

But that's not where the impact stops. The project is also expected to add four new manufacturing facilities, 80,000 square feet in new manufacturing space, $12 million in new private investment, 230 new direct jobs and 390 created jobs over a 15-year period. Right now, the SmartZone and city plan to locate the breeder in the Air Industrial Park across from the airport.

The building will be constructed by the city, with funding from both the city and tax increment revenues from the Local Development Finance Authority, which contracts with SSMart Inc. to operate the SmartZone.

Plans for the future facility include a high-tech conference room, and an office for the Michigan Small Business Technology Development Center, which provides services like counseling and research for small businesses.

As for production facilities, the building will include a multi-purpose machining space and a loading dock for clients that need big machinery or materials.

Using existing resources at LSSU, faculty, staff and students will work with clients to examine issues like material selection, product quality, production cycle time, and user interface as well as assist with computer programming and website development.

"One of the services of the breeder, and the whole idea of a commercializing and manufacturing center, is to make some product runs right there with the client to show them step by step of how they are doing," says Becks.

Often, businesses ship prototypes overseas and have a large test number produced before the final product. Providing space for test production will eliminate that costly process and let clients avoid buying expensive equipment and software.

Becks also is the engineering projects manager at LSSU, and expects the breeder to increase interest in business ventures within the university. As the SmartZone generates new products, the professors and students that have worked on these projects may want to expand on their own ideas and bring them to the SmartZone.

"We envision the SmartZone feeding itself," says Becks. "We want to develop that entrepreneurial spirit; ultimately turning out not just new products but new businesses."

And Hendricks says this may be just the beginning of much bigger things, like more incubator space or other breeder-like facilities in the future.

"I think there's some positive things for the future that are going to come out of all this, we're just in the early phases," he says. "It's like being at the beginning of something really big but you're not quite sure where it's going to go."

Raised in historic Calumet, Victoria Peters always dreamed of pursuing a career in journalism, or becoming an "ABC girl," as she referred to the profession in her kindergarten days. A recent graduate of Michigan Technological University, she now resides in Sault Ste. Marie in the eastern Upper Peninsula. Peters currently works as a receptionist, freelance writer and copy editor.

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