Marquette makes ‘smart’ move

Emma Finkbeiner

NMU, Michigan Tech University (MTU) and the cities of Houghton, Hancock and Marquette are working to create a satellite business incubator in Marquette with the hopes that it will spur new business, particularly in the tech, medical and environmental fields.

“The SmartZone will catalyze innovation by linking the talent and ideas of NMU faculty and students with other inventors, entrepreneurs, financiers and other mentors and resources they need for success,” Bill Vajda, Marquette city manager said.

The MTU’s Corporation SmartZone has created 410 jobs since 2002. The new Marquette smartZone will be developed as a satellite to emulate its MTU’s success.

The MTU SmartZone, located in Houghton, focuses on “commercializing ideas, patents and other opportunities surrounding corporate, university or private research institute efforts.”

Currently, Michigan has a network of 15 smartZones with most of them partnering closely with state universities.

NMU is entering the smartZone incubation later than most state universities. These incubators employ locally and help community members and university students kick start businesses.

“A number of students have participated in the [smartZone] programming and have formed companies,” Dave Reed, MTU vice president of research, said. “[SmartZone] companies hire students both before they graduate in part-time or summer employment and after they graduate as full-time employees.”

One of the first projects the Michigan Tech SmartZone pioneered was GS Engineering. Glen Simula started the company through the SmartZone to apply research he had done for 19 years into advanced technology at the Keweenaw Research Center, MTU, to solve commercial and military engineering problems. Then, it was a company of three employees working from home. It has expanded to 70 full-time employees.

NMU has a similar asset already — Northern Initiatives. Northern Initiatives is a community development financial institution that offers loans to small businesses and entrepreneurs to help create jobs. It began inside the university in 1985 and became a private non-profit corporation in 1992.

Northern Initiatives has played a role in the development of some of the most well known businesses in Marquette. These include Border Grill, Blackrocks Brewery and the Marquette Food Co-Op.

Beth Millner Jewelry is another project the lender helped finance. Millner, a 2008 NMUgraduate, went looking for help when her business was large enough to constitute additional positions and a downtown location. She didn’t have the assets for a traditional loan and Northern Initiatives stepped in to fill the gap.

“Northern Initiatives is a great source for those businesses that have the potential to be great but don’t qualify for loans in the traditional sense,” Millner said. “It is a wonderful resource for our local economy.”

According to Dennis West, president of the non-profit lender, Northern Initiatives differs from the SmartZone because it focuses on financial assistance and advising.

However, he is confident that the two organizations will work closely together rather than compete.

“It seems likely as the two smartZones build their collective strategies and plans that we will be regularly in their mix of companies,” West said. “We can complement each other, working to provide referrals back and forth.”

NMU President Fritz Erickson is supportive of the development. He said the satellite SmartZone in Marquette could help create more jobs for NMU graduates and entrepreneurs, which would enable these graduates to stay in the Upper Peninsula after completing their degrees.