Following the trail of innovation in the U.P.

The Upper Peninsula has long been the home of innovation that has changed the world. 

Take Kingsford Charcoal, for example. It was invented by Edward G. Kingsford, who helped Henry Ford obtain 300,00-plus acres in Iron Mountain for a sawmill and a parts plant to assemble the wood accessories for the Model T. 

Like with any production line, waste – in this case sawdust – is inevitable. A University of Oregon chemist created a method of making tiny pillow-shaped clumps of sawdust for fuel.  Thomas Edison orchestrated a factory next to the sawmill, where production of the “charcoal briquettes” were produced and sold for profit to meat and fish smokehouses across Michigan. 

It wasn’t until after World War II that charcoal became a household staple, as suburban migration took off and the invention of the Weber grill.

And then there’s the outboard motor. It was invented in Marquette by a fellow named Nels Flodin in 1895. The company Evinrude purchased the idea and refined the product for the market, making lake access more readily available in the U.P. and the rest of the country.

Historically speaking, the extraction of raw materials, such as timber and minerals for the automobile industry, and tourism have largely been the driving force of the Upper Peninsula’s contribution to Michigan’s economy. 

So, how does the U.P. contribute more than just raw materials and tourism for Michigan’s economy? 

David Ollila, inventor, entrepreneur, Northern Michigan University alum, and U.P. native, believes there is a market for the U.P. to be a major player in Michigan’s economy as well as the global stage. 

“When you bring innovators like Kingsford, Ford, and Edison to a location of interest and bring them together, you come up with new products, new categories, and new ways to create transactions between our communities and the state of Michigan,” Ollila said.

Invent@NMU, founded by Ollila, provides undergraduate students at Northern Michigan University with the opportunity to do just that – pursue ideas to create new products and new exchanges (to get the product to customers) between the communities of the Upper Peninsula and the rest of Michigan. 

The student program began at NMU in 2014. It’s open to regional inventors and entrepreneurs, helping them bring their product or business idea to market, as well as business owners looking to innovate from within. Students pursue their education at NMU while receiving mentorship from the professional management staff at Innovate Marquette SmartZone, an economic development organization.

“Invent@NMU was created to provide an outlet for everyday people who are walking around with ideas, and then develop the talent from the Invent@NMU employee side to understand how the process of vetting an idea, prototyping a product, testing the market, and launch a product into a business is done,” said Ollila, who is also behind the creation of ShopHouse Park in Marquette, a mixed-use development concept aimed at outdoor innovation.

“Invent@NMU is recognized across the nation as an avenue for the unusual suspects in entrepreneurship and innovation to be part of the process,” he said.

One of Invent@NMU's recent success stories is VirsaQuest. Behind VirsaQuest is Henry Westlind, an NMU senior majoring in entrepreneurship and business management. 

“VirsaQuest is an early stage, ready-for-investment startup out of Marquette. Our project is a patent-pending, revolutionary paddle board design that caters to all skill levels,” Westlind said. 

VirsaQuest is creating a new kind of stand-up paddleboard, a multi-purpose paddleboard with state-of-the-art technology that allows the user to paddle and then some, like scuba dive. 

As a company, VirsaQuest will operate with three distinctive business models. One is selling paddleboards directly to consumers. The other is a rental business concept. He envisions portable pop-up businesses operating out of cargo shipping containers, renting paddleboards. The last is a membership tier – think of Pelaton, an exercise bike company that streams indoor cycling classes live and on-demand – but on paddle boards.

The first pop up, VirsaQuest Village, is set to open the second week of June in Marquette. The aim is to have these cargo container pop-ups available for purchase as franchises any place there is water and offer paddle board rentals. 

“I see VirsaQuest being in every state that has water; it is a portable business; a franchise owner can set up their VirsaQuest franchise in the Upper Peninsula, or in the Lower Peninsula for the summer, and that franchise owner can set up shop in say Florida for the winter, making VirsaQuest a year-round business,” Westlind said.

Regarding his third business model, Westlind said instruction-based physical activity does not have to be limited to jumping on your Peloton in your living room or a spinning class at your local gym. His membership tier will allow customers to gain structure and guidance – like a Pelaton bike – but while on their paddle board enjoying the great outdoors. 

TheVirsaQuest Membership Tier will offer customers the flexibility of joining a class and/or taking their own ViraiQuest paddle board to any VirsaQuest Village location, where they can participate in a group paddle board exercise class. If a customer is not near a VirsaQuest Village, they can participate in a remote class through streaming. 

“VirsaQuest allows members to rent a paddle board or bring their own VirsiQuest paddle board; they can even bring their own generic paddleboard and participate in classes, depending on what membership tier the customer has opted to purchase,” said Westlind. “In addition to this, VirsaQuest members can participate in group classes on the comfort of their home water, in the event a VirsaQuest Village has yet to reach their area.”

Innovations like VirsaQuest are coming to fruition thanks not only to Invent@NMU but also Northern Michigan University, Innovate Marquette SmartZone, Invest U.P., and others. This team is helping bring new products, new categories, and new transactions to life in the Upper Peninsula, helping revive its role as an economic stronghold and a chance to sit at the big table with global economic contributors.  

Ryan McChesney is a senior at Northern Michigan University, majoring in English Secondary Education and a freelance journalist. He enjoys the outdoors and all things U.P.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.