In business, keeping a customer and client base is usually a critical factor to success. But Kevin Ricco, director of the Muskegon Innovation Hub, is often happy when his clients are able to leave.
The Hub, as it’s commonly known, is an incubator and resource base for entrepreneurs and business owners, offering a wide array of services like business development, training, work space and more. If those resources work well, Ricco said the hope is that his clients — small businesses looking to grow and succeed — will eventually become sustainable and achieve their potential, allowing them to develop, expand and move on.
“Our goal is to help them validate their business model and determine if there is a customer base,” Ricco said. “While we know that not every company succeeds, whenever we have a client meet their goals and expand into their own space outside the Hub, it’s a real success for us.”
The Hub is a growing influence in the Muskegon area, which has been steadily recovering from a period of significant economic downturn that came with a major recession about a decade ago. Combined with the work of other economic development organizations and programs, the city has seen in excess of $150 million dollars in investments and projects during 2018 and 2019, according to published reports.
The Hub puts up significant numbers each year in the business incubation and development space. In 2019, the Hub served 96 companies, including 62 new companies, helped create 47 direct jobs and retain 260 more. Seven companies “graduated” from the Hub in 2019.
Product development is also important. Hub clients applied for nearly four dozen patents, trademarks and copyrights, with 10 awarded. That helped drive the launch of 15 commercialized products and follow-on investments of nearly $28 million into client companies.
One client with commercial success and extensive patent awards is Energy Partners, led by James Wolter, a former Grand Valley professor who now dedicates his time to the solar power industry. Wolter and Energy Partners have been awarded five patents since first joining the incubator program about nine years ago, including one that uses ballasted mounts to make solar panel installation faster and cheaper, while allowing panels in environmentally sensitive areas where drilling installation posts wouldn’t be possible.
Other Hub clients that have moved out and up include LongerDays, a virtual assistance company that has grown and stayed in Muskegon, as well as ThrivePOP, a digital marketing, design and web development company located right in the heart of the redeveloped section of the city’s downtown.
New programs are being rolled out at the Hub to further drive the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, including the launch of an annual contest called “Lakeshore Innovator of the Year,” which recognizes an innovative product, idea, process or service created by a company or nonprofit. Last year, the award went to Camp Shout Out, where kids who have stuttering problems spend a week having fun and working with speech-language pathologists. The 2020 award winner will be announced in mid-March.
“We’re seeing these companies have success in the Muskegon area as well as our clients up and down the Lakeshore,” Ricco said. “There’s a real community tie here, and we’re working hard for these clients because we know it will benefit the Muskegon area and West Michigan as a whole. It’s rewarding doing work that benefits the whole community in that way.”