Marquette's outdoor innovation center moves forward

As anyone who lives in the Upper Peninsula knows, the coronavirus pandemic drove millions of Americans back to the outdoors to state and national parks and recreational areas – like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – to kayak, fish, hike, bike and pursue a host of other seasonal activities. 

This reawakening came along with advances in technology – solar technologies, battery technologies and other innovations that made adventures in the outdoors more  approachable and comfortable. 

Those innovations and the growing outdoor recreation industry are among the reasons behind the Marquette Outdoor Venture Innovation Center, a space for entrepreneurs to develop and test products and services related to outdoor recreation and bring them to market.

Joe Thiel, CEO of Innovate Marquette and an alumnus of Northern Michigan University, says product innovation can come in "anything you do in the outdoor space." He says think about how "you can make that easier, faster, more efficient, more creature comfort friendly." That's the space the Marquette Outdoor Venture Innovation Center is looking for. 

"The potential for economic growth in the outdoor recreation mobility and accessibility sector, particularly for the U.P., is massive," Thiel says.

Joe Thiel, CEO of Innovate Marquette, and David Ollila, the inaugural Entrepreneur in Residence program.

Tapping local resources, including budding talent at local colleges and universities, the Marquette Outdoor Venture Innovation Center is poised to become a major force in Michigan’s growing outdoor recreation economy.

What’s happening: The creation of the Marquette Outdoor Venture Innovation Center (MOV) has taken a major step forward with a $555,000 Rural Innovation Stronger Economy (RISE) grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant was awarded to Innovate Marquette SmartZone and its project partners, Northern Michigan University, Lake Superior Community Partnership and Michigan Works! That federal grant was matched with $145,000 in local funds from Innovate Marquette and its program partners.

What the money does: The grants will support the creation and management of the  Marquette Outdoor Venture Innovation Center, an incubator that will accelerate the growth of small businesses and jobs in the growing outdoor recreation industry. The focus will be on innovative products, mobility and accessibility in recreation, sustainable and creative technologies, including smart-connected platforms and systems. The center hopes to leverage assets and increase collaboration to diversify and strengthen the regional economy.

Why the Upper Peninsula: Look around. The U.P. is home to millions of acres of woods, rivers and outdoor recreation areas, from the Porcupine Mountains to Hiawatha National Forest. These are ideal grounds to test recreation innovations. Recreation and automotive products are already being tested by major companies in the U.P., taking advantage of its rugged, isolated terrain and challenging weather. The outdoor recreation industry is also on the upswing in Michigan and in the U.P.  The outdoor recreation contributed $9.5 billion to Michigan’s economy last year, with a year-to-year growth rate of 15 percent. In  Marquette County, outdoor recreation hit $2.9 million in 2020, while recreational vehicles and fees spending posted another $2.5 million, Innovate Marquette says.

Partner strategies for the project: Project partners are working together to implement four strategies: 
  • Provide education, outreach and investment programming for outdoor recreation innovation entrepreneurs;
  • Develop a Makerspace for entrepreneurs in outdoor recreation access and mobility products;
  • Establish a pipeline via education and training pathways for high-quality, new-economy outdoor recreation jobs; and
  • Augment the Innovate Marquette accelerator and incubator programs to promote outdoor recreation innovation and connect entrepreneurs to venture capital.

“The MOV Innovation Center will help turn ideas into reality, tapping into our legacy of innovation, manufacturing and outdoors expertise in the region,” says Christopher Germain, an alumnus of Northern Michigan University and CEO of Lake Superior Community Partnership. “It is especially exciting to see this USDA grant be awarded at a time when the State of Michigan is also showing significant interest in the outdoor recreation industry and our regional economic development goals to develop this cluster.”

The site of the Marquette Outdoor Venture Innovation Center.

Where will the Innovation Center be located: Plans call for the new facility to be located along the Dead River, just north of Holly Street in North Marquette. The three-acre site will eventually be home to ShopHouse Park, a mixed-use development concept being pursued by David Ollila, a Marquette-based serial entrepreneur in outdoor recreation and innovation. The Innovation Center would be housed at ShopHouse Park. Ollila sees the location as a place where innovators can collaborate and develop new ideas while enjoying the scenic wooded location. Outdoor recreation innovation startups are already working with Innovate Marquette SmartZone at its location in downtown Marquette. 

Entrepreneur in Residence Program: As a complement to the Marquette Outdoor Venture Innovation Center, Innovate Marquette has established an Entrepreneur in Residence Program and named its inaugural resident: David Ollila. The residence program is typical of business accelerators around the globe; they are typically seasoned veterans in their areas of expertise and act as a mentor and specialist to their host organization and its accelerator clients. 

David Ollila
Ollila brings a decades-long career focused on outdoor recreation and direct entrepreneurial know-how to the role of entrepreneur in residence. He has worked across public-private boundaries throughout Michigan and the country to foster innovation, entrepreneurship and acceleration.

“Marquette and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as a whole is well positioned to take a leadership role in the technological advancement of outdoor recreation and innovation,” Innovate Marquette’s Thiel says.  “Now is the right time to bring Dave into the picture as we continue to build a premier outdoor recreation, mobility and accessibility accelerator right here in Marquette. The addition of the EIR program is a huge asset to the existing companies we work with, and others out there who are seeking an accelerator with this level of specialty to help them break through to the next level of business success."