West Michigan renewable energy businesses offer blueprint for economic revival

Nadia Abunasser, PhD

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A growing number of entrepreneurs and emerging high-tech startups are helping Michigan's "Smartcoast" build a reputation as a destination for innovation.

When you hear the term “Smartcoast,” chances are you think of the West Coast and Silicon Valley—West Michigan probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. In recent years, however, the Lake Michigan shoreline has become a hub for the lithium-ion battery technology found in electric cars, RVs and specialty vehicles. This success is no fluke, but rather part of the region’s emergence as a destination for innovative, high-tech startups. Utilizing entrepreneurship and collaboration, they have shown how a region’s economy does not have to rely on big businesses to thrive. Today, local companies are winning national awards and government contracts, and Holland, Michigan, was recently named the best small city to start a business in the United States.

Entrepreneurship can be challenging—building a company is no small feat. Even with a revolutionary idea, a startup can still face financial, developmental and staffing issues—among others—as it begins operations. In Michigan, entrepreneurs have taken advantage of state resources like the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), local accelerators and public universities to form innovative startups that are now major players in the alternative-energy sector. These resources help entrepreneurs navigate the difficult early stages of the startup process, like the entrepreneurial valley of death, and access the right resources at the right time.

Holland-based companies Jolt Energy Storage Technologies, Volta Power Systems and Global Battery Solutions have been at the forefront of this entrepreneurial revolution and have all benefited from Michigan’s robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. Lakeshore Advantage, a nonprofit economic development organization founded in 2003 with key support from MEDC, aids companies from startups to grownups and helps nurture entrepreneurship and innovation in Ottawa and Allegan counties. Through its SURGE program, Lakeshore Advantage supported Jolt, Volta and Global Battery Solutions by providing mentorship, resources and networking opportunities that helped them secure a collective $90,000 to achieve their next milestones.  

As the startups grew, it helped them locate the right resources for their own, unique stages of development until they were ready to operate independently. With Michigan ranking first in the United States for its concentration of commercial and industrial designers, as well as fourth in the country for electrical engineers, a strong support network exists for renewable energy entrepreneurs to tap into.

Of course, Michigan’s automotive history and maintained prowess offers a unique advantage for startups looking to break into the automotive industry. Seventy-one out of 100 automotive suppliers in North America are headquartered in Michigan, with another 25 having a presence in the state. Meanwhile, the state has seen $32 billion investments made into its automakers since 2009 — representing 25% of the total investments made into the industry in North America during that time. Entrepreneurs grounding their renewable energy ideas within the automotive industry allow themselves the opportunity to satiate the sector’s hunger for new ideas and technologies as it shifts from fossil fuels and human drivers to renewable energy and autonomous vehicles. With Michiganders filling this desire, it is no surprise Michigan has become a leader for innovative battery and electric vehicle technologies, with 4 of the 9 total U.S. electric vehicle battery assembly plants located in Michigan.

However, there are many different measurements of success, and entrepreneurs must be flexible. Traditional views of success often look to sales, and many companies have achieved success through this realm. Volta Power Systems, for example, started by providing lithium-ion energy storage solutions but now makes power systems for RV, yachts, coaches, utility trucks and more. With its ability to provide energy storage solutions with five times the life, in one-third the space, and with one-sixth the weight of traditional systems, it has already amassed an impressive client list, including Winnebago, Advanced RV, Utilimaster, Liberty Coach and Prevost.

Success for startups can also mean awards or contracts. Jolt Energy Storage Technologies aims to reduce or eliminate the danger of lithium-ion batteries overheating and exploding when overcharged. Coming out of the Michigan State University Bioeconomy Institute, it has won support from the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and an Orcelle Award from the Ocean Exchange.

Entrepreneurial success can also come through market disruption. Global Battery Solutions was founded in 2014 by a former math and science teacher, Jennifer Sierra, and disrupted the electric-vehicle market by offering used-battery solutions that reduce replacement costs by more than 90%. It has since disrupted the market further by merging with Illinois-based Dynamic Manufacturing to form Dynamic GBS, the automotive industry’s largest electric-vehicle-battery repair and remanufacturing supplier.

Entrepreneurship can provide regions with a path to great success, in any form. With a good idea, determination and the right support, anyone can be an entrepreneur. The renewable energy sector offers myriad opportunities as traditional manufacturing gives way to innovative solutions, and places like Michigan are in a prime position to capitalize on this revolution with critical ecosystem support from organizations like MEDC. With the blueprint already laid out for success, entrepreneurs have a way forward to capitalize on their innovative ideas in Michigan.

This content was originally published at renewableenergyworld.com.

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