How Northwest Michigan is Breaking Boundaries in Business

Northwest Michigan invests in innovators and entrepreneurs.

By
Kim Madlom
On Thursday, March 5, 2020 - 12:08
nw mi

In today’s high-speed, connected world, many creative and talented people can live anywhere and work everywhere. This is good news for Northwest Michigan, as its outdoor recreation opportunities, educational excellence and eagerness to recruit and invest in entrepreneurs create an inviting atmosphere for young families and business innovators. 

As the globe becomes more connected through the internet and air travel, people have more of an opportunity to choose where they live and have the job they are trained to do wherever they like,” says Matt McCauley, chief executive officer of Networks Northwest. “For those people who are looking for substance in where they live and how they live, and for that connection between prosperity, the outdoors and a sense of community, we have that going on.”

That substance includes spectacular natural attractions, such as Lake Michigan as well as other lakes, parks, hiking and biking trails and a thriving hospitality industry full of excellent restaurants, wineries and craft breweries that are positively impacting the area’s economy.

Also providing an economic boost is a growing technology-driven manufacturing segment, capitalizing on Michigan’s important automotive heritage. Manufacturers with operations in the region include boatmaker Four Winns and cleaning system producer Rexair, both in Cadillac; enabling components and diagnostic equipment maker Electro-Optics Technology in Traverse City; and iron foundry East Jordan Iron Works in Charlevoix.

Kalkaska Screw Products, an employee-owned company, manufactures highly engineered machined components used in the automotive, aerospace and heavy truck industries.

Another Kakaska-based manufacturer, Wayne Wire Cloth Products Inc., is a global leader in the fabrication of custom filtration components used in everything from jet engines to airbags, gas tanks and sink drains.

Tangible Support

The region is also home to an enviable network of business services. For example, Traverse City’s SCORE chapter is known as one of the best in the nation. The Small Business Development Center and community colleges work together to provide services to businesses, and Northwestern Michigan College has a new innovation center in the works.

The assistance provided to entrepreneurs and new and expanding companies isn’t just talk, it’s tangible. Most communities the size of Traverse City don’t have locally based access to capital. Banks don’t commonly make significant loans to startups. But the venture capital and angel investing concepts at work in the area are making that capital available.

Casey Cowell, the co-founder of U.S. Robotics Inc. who now runs venture capital firm Boomerang Catapult, is at the tip of the spear in terms of helping launch new companies in the region.

“It’s possible to have a company in a smaller, remote market that can still compete globally,” Cowell says.

That’s the philosophy behind Boomerang Catapult – to invest in companies that create high economic value and can export what they create to markets around the world – which generates greater income and wealth back home.

Creating Wealth

Boomerang Catapult has helped start or grow 15 companies in the region in the last 2.5 years, including ATLAS Space Operations Inc., which makes antennas for ground-based communication with satellites; GeoTix, which allows magazines and newspapers to directly sell tickets for local events to their readers; and Interactive Aerial, a maker of drones to be used in interior spaces.

The result is the creation of many high-paying jobs with more on the way.

“Our challenge is how we can continue to staff these companies as they grow and need more talented people,” Cowell says. “We believe there are talented people out there who would love to live in this community with this beautiful setting.”

Cowell is especially interested in attracting talented people with ties to Traverse City and the region – like a boomerang that returns to its place of origin. To date, Cowell and his company have helped bring 22 “boomerangs” back to the region.

“We’re looking for those people who grew up in Traverse City or the region, went out in the world and got good at doing something and would want to come back if there is work,” he says. “We want to back them as they start new companies or help grow smaller existing companies. Many of the most talented people in the workforce are not tied to a job by geography. The broad-based deployment of high-speed internet has made it possible for many, if not most, jobs to be undertaken any place.”