Keep an eye on these outdoor rec startups

There's a lot going on in Michigan's outdoor recreation industry. And a lot of that innovation is happening in the Upper Peninsula.

It's a burgeoning industry, one to keep an eye on, especially as recreation stalwarts and entrepreneurs adapt the latest technology to our love of the outdoors. Electric trails? That was something unheard of a few years back. Now, Ontonagon County in the western U.P. is home to the nation's first-electric trails. 

The outdoor recreation industry is a big slice of Michigan's economic pie -- $10.8 billion, and the Great Lakes State is striving to be the leading state for outdoor recreation innovation, vehicle technology and sustainability. 

Here's a few startups to watch, from both the upper and lower peninsulas. We'll continue to share stories of outdoor recreation startups and entrepreneurs in the future. Read on.

Saving lives, one beach at a time

People flock to Great Lakes beaches every summer, to swim and play in the
water. But some of them never come home.

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, about 100 people drown in
the Great Lakes every year. A young entrepreneur, an alum of Michigan Technological University in Houghton, is using technology to turn those numbers around. 

Shortly after he graduated from Michigan Tech, Jacob Soter and Andrew Barnard, his faculty advisor, partnered to establish SwimSmart Technology, a company that designs and installs high-tech safety systems at beaches.

Jacob Soter and his business partner's SwimSmart is long-overdue technology in water safety.

“It is very technically challenging to develop electronics that will work in a
harsh, remote, coastal environment,” Soter says. “We’re applying modern-day
technology to a space that is in great need of innovative new solutions.” 

SwimSmart in action at a Michigan beach.The core technology monitors water conditions from National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Weather Service data. It
works like a fire alarm, Soter explains.

"There are alarms, warning lights and other tools to prevent dangerous situations. Triggering the system can also notify first responders to emergencies and empower swimmers to swim smarter and know how to prevent drowning," he says.

The pair plan to operate their system this summer on 30 beaches in Michigan,
Wisconsin, Georgia and North Carolina.

Most of SwimSmart’s start-up funding came from crowdfunding while Soter was still in school. Since then, he and Barnard have boot-strapped the business with their own funds.

SwimSmart plans to keep its signage manufacturing in the U.P. “We're committed to ensuring that a portion of our product line is manufactured where the product originated—in the Upper Peninsula,” he says.

"We're also an engineering/solutions company. There's no better resource for quality engineers than Michigan Tech, and we intend on heavily utilizing its talent pipeline to build our team for years to come," Soter adds.

Charging for fun on trails 

You can rent off-road vehicles and snowmobiles at Hamilton's North Coast Adventures in the western U.P. But Hamilton's, launched by Wisconsin transplant Steve Hamilton a few years ago, boasts something unusual among its fleet of rentals: the first of their kind electric off-road vehicles or e-ORVs. 

Hamilton's, a Polaris dealer in Ontonagon, offers a fleet of six all-electric Polaris RANGER XP Kinetic off-road vehicles. Outdoor enthusiasts can lease an e-ORV at Hamilton's and then explore 120 miles of trails, where four electric chargers have been conveniently installed to keep the tour going. Hamilton’s is home to one of the chargers.

One of four charging stations on the electric-trail network in Ontonagon County.The "electric trails" are a first in the country.  Polaris has partnered with Hamilton's, state and local officials on the one-of-a-kind project. The machines are more environmentally friendly and quieter than their traditional counterparts. The hope is adventurers along the electric trail will better enjoy the landscape and make stops at natural landmarks and small businesses.

"You can go 35 mph and still have a conversation," Hamilton says. 

Steve Hamilton
The Polaris e-ORVs sport 29-inch tires and are fully enclosed cabins with heat, navigation, Bluetooth stereos, wipers and windshield sprayers, providing the premium UTV experience Polaris is known for, Hamilton says. The machines feature a 110-horsepower, all-electric motor with nearly 30 kilowatts of battery storage.

"This is like getting in a Tesla for the first time," Hamilton says. "You put the pedal down and you're like, 'Oh, this what this is all about.' If you like performance, these vehicles provide that. These are premium machines -- they have every feature imaginable."

Hamilton's began using the e-ORVs this winter, thanks to a lack of snowfall. To learn more or rent one this spring or summer, go to Hamilton’s North Coast Adventures. 

Biking down railroad tracks

Imagine taking a scenic rail trip, but without the train. Instead, you're out in
the open air, using your legs for power. It’s called rail biking, and you can give it a whirl in Traverse City. There are just eight rail bike operations nationwide, and this is the only one in Michigan. 

A rail bike is a specially designed, four-wheel, open vehicle that riders pedal to
move it along abandoned railroad tracks. Each rail bike holds two to four people.

Wheels on Rails is the brainchild of a young entrepreneur, Macie Hefron. It
grew from her love for the outdoors, cycling and railroads. Hefron worked in the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Rail while attending Spring Harbor University. The job gave her a passion for railroading. She also loved biking.

Wheels on Rails runs along an unused stretch of train tracks near Traverse City. The adventure is part bike ride, part train ride.“I wanted to incorporate my two passions,” she says, and Wheels on Rails was born. Starting a new and unfamiliar business, she could not find funding, so she used her own savings to get her project going.

Macie HefronHefron, 23, says she also faced age and gender discrimination, but she
persisted. “Now I can advocate for women in entrepreneurship and women in
male-dominated fields,” she says proudly. “I can also share my story with younger generations. I want them to know that anything is possible if you have the time, energy and passion to do it.”

She hopes her venture will attract visitors to the northwestern lower peninsula. Wheels on Rails will start offering 3-mile and 6-mile rail bike tours, beginning May 24.

See Wheels on Rails for more information or to book a tour.

Electrifying and modernizing the RV landscape

Most people wouldn't equate the Motor City with innovation in outdoor recreation.

But at least one startup, Grounded, an electric RV startup, has found a home in Detroit, initially building a prototype in a parking lot and then a heated tent before moving into the Newlab in Detroit, an incubator for startups and others at Ford Motor Co.'s Corktown campus. Recently, Grounded moved into a nearby 12,000-square-foot facility but maintains a presence at Newlab.

The Grounded G2 Campervan, with a 250-mile range, is available on the market.
The company unveiled its first fully customizable smart electric RV in the spring of 2023. Founded in 2022, the company is composed of engineers, designers, architects and others, led by CEO Sam Shapiro.  Grounded's goal is to create products that will enable people to explore more without harming the planet.

The inspiration for electric RVs came during the pandemic when things were shut down and Shapiro wanted to travel. "I was looking to work remotely and do some traveling," he recalls. "I was disappointed by what I saw with the RVs on the market. There was a lack of technology, a lack of sustainability and a lack of modern design."

Shapiro, who lived in New York City before moving to Detroit, ended up building out his own camper and hit the road, working and living remotely for six months. "I had never been in an RV before ... this set me up on this path to change the RV landscape."

Last fall the company launched the Grounded G2 Campervan, described as the world’s first 250-mile range all-electric solar-equipped RV. The campervan uses the BrightDrop Zevo platform. Its amenities include remotely controllable electronics and appliances, a comfortable queen size bed, kitchen with fridge/freezer, sink and induction stove and a spacious interior and high ceiling. The vehicles are being manufactured in Detroit and are available today.

Information: Grounded.

Jennifer Donovan is a reporter with more than 40 years of experience on daily newspapers, magazines and university writing and editing. She is retired as director of news and media relations at Michigan Technological University and lives in Houghton.
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