Pushing innovation in the U.P.

The U.P. is a breeding ground for innovators and entrepreneurs who want to launch businesses. 

Many of them need support and direction to get their projects off the ground, and that’s part of the inspiration behind the annual Innovation Week, coming up January 22 to 26 at Michigan Technological University: To help budding entrepreneurs get started.

Innovation Week will feature innovation and entrepreneurship talks, panels and competitions. Launched in 2017, the program, at the Memorial Union Building on campus and on Zoom, is free and open to students, faculty, staff and the community at large. 

Husky Innovate is hosting Innovation Week. A collaboration between Michigan Tech’s Pavlis Honors College, the university’s Office of Innovation and Commercialization and the College of Business, Husky Innovate works to develop an entrepreneurial mindset across disciplines. 

Innovation Week’s impact reaches far beyond the university campus. Vibrant new businesses to boost the region’s economy could emerge.  

“Innovation Week will introduce students and other innovators to entrepreneurial ways of thinking and the potential opportunities that go with it,” says Len Switzer, associate director of the Enterprise Program at Michigan Tech. 

“It is a way to connect people with ideas to those with resources and solutions,” he adds. “By showing people how to leverage their entrepreneurial spirit through events like Innovation Week, we hope to get more people to start new and exciting businesses in the region and continue to broaden the economic base of the U.P.”

Nate Yenor, director of tech business incubation with the Office of Innovation and Commercialization at Michigan Tech, notes: “While many startups do not make it, others have created good employment opportunities for local community members.”

One of those successful companies is Orbion Space Technology. 

Its founder and CEO is Brad King, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Tech. He will be Innovation Week’s keynote speaker.

"The U.P. has a very high-quality, small-town lifestyle, but still has access to the knowledge, innovation and education available from major universities,” he says.

John Soyring, a successful entrepreneur and Michigan Tech alumnus who will also speak at Innovation Week, adds, “Young people graduating from high school or college need to be able to find good jobs to keep them in the U.P.  But there are social and economic roadblocks to attracting businesses here."

The main ones, he says, are the need for better transportation and green energy. A third and former roadblock, internet access, has been solved, he says. 
Soyring urges budding entrepreneurs to identify and address the social and economic issues facing the U.P. 

Aerospace entrepreneur

King, the keynote speaker, will share his journey as an entrepreneur, explaining how he and his team have addressed market demands and the challenges of scaling up. Orbion Space Technology’s satellite thruster technology addresses a key need within the space industry by providing a cost-effective way to maneuver satellites efficiently. 

Brad King“There is nothing of value in an idea — no matter how good it is,” King says. “You will never sell an idea.  Your idea only becomes valuable when you execute on it and make it real.  And that execution always requires a team.”

“The first thing an entrepreneur should do is a gut check,” he adds. “Think hard about how strongly you believe in your plan and ask yourself if you really want to take the leap.  If the answer is not ‘hell, yes,’ then it should be ‘hell, no.’  It is all in or don’t do it.”

King is director of the Space Research Group and faculty advisor to the student-run Aerospace Enterprise at Michigan Tech. Under his direction, the Aerospace Enterprise team won a NASA competition that enabled them to launch a student-built nanosatellite, Oculus-ASR, on a nine-month mission on a SpaceX Falcon rocket. 

King’s presentation is scheduled for 12:30 - 1:30 p.m., Monday, January 22, in Michigan Tech’s Memorial Union Building Alumni Lounge.

Impact Investing

Impact investing is an investment strategy that seeks measurable, positive societal or environmental impact as well as financial return.

John SoyringLongtime entrepreneur John Soyring will lead a discussion about his experience as an angel impact investor. He’ll talk about the difference between that kind of investing and the more traditional kind, and he’ll discuss the opportunities that exist for investors, as well as opportunities for the founders of startup companies with a social mission.

Soyring served as an IBM senior executive for years, retiring to focus on his passion: philanthropy addressing social and economic issues, especially health care, air and water quality.  

Since retiring from IBM, he has founded four start-up companies. He is president of the board of directors for SWAN Impact Network, a nonprofit impact investing company. 

His talk will highlight the importance of empathy and diversity.

“You must have the empathy to understand the people in your target market,” he says. “You also need to understand the diversity of your market. The people we sell to have different levels of comfort with technology, different levels of education, different cultural backgrounds and differences of experience. You need diversity in your team too.”

Soyring’s talk is scheduled for noon to 1 pm, Wednesday, January 24, on Zoom.

Patent your innovation

Once an innovator comes up with a big idea, he or she needs some development and investment help.

In a seminar by Ashley Sloat, president and director of patent strategy at Aurora Patents, innovators and entrepreneurs will get tips for careful contracting with key partners and hear how investors evaluate your startup’s risk exposure.

Sloat is a patent specialist focusing on the development and management of patent portfolios for startup ventures and emerging growth companies. She will discuss everything an entrepreneur needs to know about intellectual property and patents, from engaging with an engineering firm to ultimately pitching to an investment group.  

“Intellectual property (IP) is the best way to convert your idea into capital,” she says. “IP can be licensed, sold, marketed and used for investment collateral. This is critical for all companies, but particularly, early-stage companies. Critically, you should seek patent protection before publicly disclosing your ideas, exploring partnerships or speaking with investors.” 

Her advice to would-be entrepreneurs: “With the most radical self-candor, fully understand and validate what differentiates your idea, who would pay for it and what it would truly take to bring it to the market.”

Sloat’s seminar is scheduled for noon to 1:30 p.m., Thursday, January 25, in Memorial Union Ballroom B.
And there’s more

Other programs during Innovation Week include the Bob Mark business model pitch competition, a reverse pitch competition and a presentation on Michigan Tech’s Enterprise Program. 

* During the Bob Mark business model competition, graduate and undergraduate students from across campus disciplines will pitch their business model to a panel of judges for cash prizes. It is a tribute to the late College of Business Professor of Practice Bob Mark, who started the pitch competition. 

The Bob Mark business model competition will be held 5 to 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, January 24, in Memorial Union Ballroom A. 

* Husky Innovate is sponsoring a reverse pitch competition. Graduate students from across campus disciplines are invited to pitch their business model to a panel of judges for cash prizes. 

The reverse pitch competition is scheduled for noon to 1 p.m., Tuesday, January 23, on Zoom. 

* Michigan Tech’s Enterprise teams develop technical solutions to entrepreneurial challenges. Enterprise teams work on problems directly for industrial sponsors or the university, or on ideas that students come up with themselves in a business-like team. Len Switzer, associate director of the Enterprise Program, will talk about upcoming opportunities with Enterprise. 

Switzer was the third employee of a start-up company. He will share his insight into the relationship between technical feasibility, product market fit and manufacturability. 

The Enterprise program presentation is scheduled for noon to 1 p.m., Friday, January 26, on Zoom

Registration is requested for each event

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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