Rec-tech startups taking root in the U.P.

In the U.P., major industries include the extraction of natural resources like iron ore, nickel, and timber. On the other end of the spectrum, tourism makes up a large part of the economy as well. 

Local entrepreneurs, innovators, start-ups, and stakeholders are working hard to connect the two – so that the U.P. can be at the forefront of an entire recreation technology revolution. 

Unique companies focused on mobility within the outdoor recreation and entrepreneurial ecosystem, have made the U.P. their home base. Their goal is to take advantage of the U.P.’s abundant recreational resources to revolutionize the way all of us access and enjoy the outdoors.

Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP, the lead regional economic organization for the U.P., works to drive prosperity across the peninsula, has seen an increased desire among companies and startups to engage with natural resources and outdoor recreation, spurred, somewhat, by the pandemic, as people were seeking safety in more open spaces. The return to nature has stuck around for many.

Marty Fittante“One of the more significant changes for us is all about the quality of place and quality of life,” Fittante says. “We’ve certainly seen an increase in the desire to engage with natural resources assets and outdoor recreation assets. We believe that’s part of the reason the region is really well-positioned to grow and prosper moving forward.”

Fittante says that as remote work becomes more mainstream, and many people realize they can work ‘from anywhere’ with WiFi, the U.P. will continue to benefit from that societal change. “People are looking to live and work where there is an abundance of outdoor recreation and resources to enjoy ‘off the clock,” he says.

Many entrepreneurs are looking to launch startups and ‘set up shop’ in the region. “We’re blessed with all of this wonderful land, freshwater lakeshore, and it’s the perfect testbed for innovation and entrepreneurship in that outdoor recreation space,” Fittante says. 

The widespread focus on innovation and mobility, especially in the outdoor recreation sector – electric boats and bikes, for example – will help put the U.P. on the map. 

“If we can be innovators and entrepreneurs and use the strategic, natural assets that we have here, including our universities, it allows us new opportunities to plan this space that we never otherwise would have,” Fittante says. 

Among those already a part of this growing sector are entrepreneurs like Jacob Soter and Josef Hjelmaker, who have created new products for the outdoor market. And then there are innovators like David Ollila, the brainchild behind a new concept that will help those like Soter and Hjelmaker get their products to market. 

Josef Hjelmaker, Electric Outdoors

Josef Hjelmaker has a rather fresh relationship with the U.P. 

Moving to Michigan as an immigrant in 2016, Hjelmaker brought along a background in the automotive and appliance industry. Three years later, he began working for Thor Industries, the world’s largest RV manufacturer. After leaving that job, he took his consumer-focused passion for cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and camping and launched his own company, Electric Outdoors. 

Today, the CEO and founder is on a mission to redefine the ‘great outdoors,’ transforming how and where travelers get to go, creating hassle-free, sustainable experiences. The company builds products to support outdoor adventures, like electric vans, towing campers, and other EV options. 

“I founded Electric Outdoors because I felt there was a gap in the outdoor recreation industry,” he says. “I wanted to take the consumer experience, sustainability and electrification seriously, and there was an opportunity to help evolve and move the ways we go outdoors further.”

Through working relationships with other like-minded individuals and organizations, Electric Outdoors received a state-funded Mobility Public-Private Partnership & Programming grant for $325,000 to design, build and deploy the campsite of the future. EO-Canopy will be a solar-powered, off-grid battery storage destination platform, with EV charging at rural campsites.

Courtesy of Electric Outdoors“This is very aligned with the vision and purpose of the U.P. trying to electrify the U.P. in a sustainable way,” Hjelmaker says. “This grant will support us to build our first prototype that we will be deploying this year or early next year if time and weather allow.”

Like many others, Hjelmaker believes the U.P. has everything for the outdoor adventure enthusiast: vast outdoors, forests, mountains, and lakes. Maintaining the sustainability of those outdoor assets is at the heart of the Hjelmaker’s company. The hope is Electric Outdoors will create more revenue, jobs, and technology development regionally, acting as a model for future models nationwide. 

“We want to do something that adds value and creates a fantastic outdoor experience,” Hjelmaker says. “From there on, hopefully, we can take this Michigan-based business and push it across the nation.”

David Ollila, ShopHouse Park

About a decade ago, inventor and entrepreneur David Ollila founded Invent@NMU at Northern Michigan University to encourage students to pursue and develop new ideas, create prototypes, market research, and launch products. 

His latest endeavor, ShopHouse Park in Marquette, will serve as an incubator for even more innovation, specifically within the outdoor recreation industry. The mixed-use facility will serve as a remote base for startups and corporations to innovate, with eight million acres of forest and 10,000 miles of trails at their doorstep.

David Ollila“ShopHouse Park is going to be a place where startups and corporations can come to the U.P., spend an extended amount of time in the exploration and product development stages, innovation, customer experiences, and tie that real-world experience to engineering, design, manufacturing, supply chain, and workforce development downstate,” Ollila says. 

Creating a buffer between an industrial development park and the Kaufman Sports Complex, ShopHouse will feature 40,000 square feet of space (multiple buildings) across some three acres. The Michigan Strategic Fund Board approved a $3 million performance-based grant to support ShopHouse Park, which is expected to open sometime next year. 

Tying together rural and urban concepts, and connecting forestry with factories can help create a massive competitive advantage for the entire state, says Ollila. As an example, he points to the history of the Ford Motor Co., noting the U.P. was also a wellhead of the auto industry, with multiple plants in the region. 

“Our extraction economy is still very supportive, we have nickel and iron ore mines, timber, those were all part of the vertical integration of the Ford Motor Company in the ‘30s and ‘40s. That was symbiotic with Detroit,” he says. 

“What that brought to the U.P. was not only industry but thought leaders, inventors and innovators,” he adds. “You need to have thought leaders engaged from a statewide perspective, not a rural versus urban perspective. The window of opportunity that is open right now is the outdoor recreation industry, specifically technology and mobility, which is in the middle of a 100-year generational reinvention.”

At the forefront of this reinvention is the electrification of mobility, he says. 

“The number one selling electric vehicle in the world right now is a bicycle, not a car,” he says. Ollila says there’s no better place in the world to create vehicles from a real-world perspective than the trail systems in rural communities. 

Ollila believes the U.P. has everything it needs to foster Michigan’s mobility engine, given its symbiosis of the auto industry and recreation sector.

“It would be a mistake for the urban centers to lead the revolution of this industry because they don’t have the context, visceral experiences of what’s important to both the end users, but also the geographic location and what it means to the people out there exploring,” he says. 

Jacob Soter, SwimSmart

While Jacob Soter was a student at Michigan Technological University, he began working on the technology for SwimSmart. Today, that idea born in a classroom has transformed the safety of beaches all over the region.

Soter and Dr. Andrew Barnard co-founded SwimSmart Technology LL, which uses real-time weather data to clearly communicate water conditions to increase safety and prevent drownings. The intuitive light system replaces outdated flags to show swim risk forecasting for swimmers, paddleboarders, and surfers. 

“SwimSmart is ultimately a beach technology provider,” says Soter, who has since graduated from Michigan Tech. “In the beginning, it started out mainly as beach safety because our guiding principle is to make beaches safer, to save lives, and to make people feel more comfortable when they’re swimming. It sort of evolved into beach technology in general, where we can now help beach managers make their beaches safer, make the staff more effective, help with park maintenance and stuff like that. We’re really a technology provider for beach managers.”

SwimSmart in action at a Michigan beach.
The system uses the traditional traffic light signals: red, yellow, and green representing high, medium, and low risk. There are units at beaches in Frankfurt, Manistee, Muskegon, Ludington, and along U.S. 2 in the U.P.  SwimSmart even has expanded outside of Michigan, with installations in Wisconsin, Georgia, and soon to be in North Carolina. 

Although the company is growing quickly, Soter says it’s important for the home base and headquarters to remain in Marquette. 

“I’m a Yooper at heart, I came up here for college and have lived here ever since,” he says. “I choose to live and work somewhere where it’s beautiful outside, the weather is great, and there’s a lot of trails and things to explore.”

The entrepreneur also believes in the power and position of the U.P. to make more advancements in the outdoor recreation industry. 

“It’s going to be a long transition, as all of these different outdoor industries adopt new technology,” he says. “It’s happening in all these different sectors, like clean snowmobiles, park safety systems, phone applications, etc., to map out resources.”

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.