Grand Rapids could become a major technology hub for the Midwest as an economic development organization looks to have a new 10-year strategy pan out.
The Right Place Inc. earlier this month shared a report with a vision to grow the tech sector in the greater Grand Rapids region. The strategy calls for 20,000 new jobs in tech over the next decade, growing the sector to 10% of all regional employment.
The strategy is the result of several months of intensive research and strategic planning with hundreds of business, academic and community leaders in the area. The Right Place convened leaders in the fall of 2021 as part of a Technology Taskforce to envision what it would be like to position Grand Rapids as the Midwest’s own tech hub.
For Randy Thelen, president and CEO of The Right Place, tech is indeed the next big opportunity for the region.
“Our regional businesses are driven by technology,” Thelen said. “Tech hubs have become the modern engines for economic growth, spurring advancement and prosperity within their communities … this collaborative plan offers a detailed roadmap to achieve our community’s bold vision and make it a reality.”
Led by co-chairs Steve Downing, CEO of Gentex, and Richard Pappas, president of Davenport University, the Technology Taskforce divided into three committees and engaged in several visioning sessions. Now, the committee work has culminated in a series of recommendations for The Right Place board of directors as outlined in the 10-year strategy.
“A handful of opportunities have really bubbled to the surface around talent and innovation, the ecosystem and business growth,” said Jennifer Wangler, vice president of technology at The Right Place and executive director of The Technology Council of West Michigan.
To bring the vision to fruition, the plan focuses on those three categories: talent, ecosystem and growth.
When it comes to talent, increasing the tech talent pipeline is fundamental to the successful execution of the overall strategy, according to the report. Key objectives involve developing, educating, reskilling and attracting workers within the sector — starting from the ground up.
“We recognize that building the pipeline is going to involve a short- and a long-term vision,” Wangler said. “We are going to have to work with multiple different sectors, from the K-12 schools to the university level, as well as boot camps and apprenticeship organizations, to create those tech jobs of the future.”
A big part of this will involve raising awareness about the opportunities Grand Rapids has to offer, according to Wangler.
“How do we take those parts of our community that have not thought about themselves as technologists and get them up to speed?” she said. “How do we look at our K-12 schools and universities to create awareness, not just with the students, but with faculty, parents and administrators?”
Supporting the next generation will help carry the strategy and the region’s growth beyond its 10-year benchmark. The report recommends increased exploration opportunities and exposure to tech careers within the region’s schools, increased corporate support of tech-related programming in the K-12 system and creation of a framework for educators to integrate tech skills in classrooms.
The report also lists recommendations for attracting new tech workers to the Grand Rapids area. Tactics include leveraging organizations such as Hello West Michigan to target individuals with ties to the region, implementing strategic advertising in “brain drain” cities losing employees within the sector, and expanding the reach of local university programs and alumni connections.
Outside of student education and attracting new talent, the strategy recommends retraining and upskilling existing talent to boost the pipeline. In a 2022 survey by Salesforce, 75% of 23,000 respondents across 19 countries said they did not feel ready to operate in a “digital-first” world.
West Michigan could create deployable models for retraining and reskilling, establish partnerships with major tech enterprises and build upon existing training programs, according to the strategy.
As for the 20,000 jobs mentioned with the strategy, Wangler said The Right Place examined comparable cities to determine what was necessary to achieve the same levels as other tech hubs.
“We did identify other like communities and looked at their ecosystems and found some similarities between our nascent community here in Grand Rapids and where they were at this starting point,” Wangler said.
For the ecosystem in Grand Rapids, the vision sees a cohesive environment in which entrepreneurs, startups and corporations are empowered to pursue new ideas and scale their companies.
Specific objectives for boosting the local tech ecosystem include the use of events, growth of incubators and accelerators, support for entrepreneurs, increase in density and expansion of broadband service through accessible and affordable internet access throughout the region.
The report cites a decline in the share of seed and early-stage venture investments in places like California’s Silicon Valley region in 2021, noting that venture capital firms are taking note of these trends and focusing on operations in smaller communities.
With the COVID-19 pandemic impacting commercial real estate for the office sector and the overall future of work, the idea of a physical ecosystem looks different than it did in pre-pandemic years.
“I think that the pandemic has pushed certain aspects of technology forward faster,” Wangler said. “What we know in the technology industry is they’ve always been able to work a little bit more remotely, a little bit more agile. But what the pandemic did is it taught all of us that there are ways that we can work differently to be more efficient.”
Still, the strategy highlights flexible offices, like co-working spaces, as a valuable option for startups to gain a foothold and build out physical density in a community. According to the report, Grand Rapids currently has 79,488 square feet of flexible office inventory and adding more physical density in the region can increase the visibility of existing companies and encourage outside businesses to establish a presence here.
The report’s third category focuses on growth and opportunity to position Grand Rapids as a place for future technological innovation and digital transformation.
Currently, the top emerging technologies within the sector in West Michigan are cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, cloud-based computing and machine learning, according to the report.
To remain competitive, area businesses will need to increasingly adopt digital technologies. This specifically involves manufacturers, which Wangler said accounts for 40% of the market in this region whereas the tech industry currently is 6%.
“It’s important to understand our landscape in West Michigan,” she said. “We’re going to have to converge the technology sector along with our other industries, like our manufacturing industry, to help create opportunities to grow both operationally and through product development in technology.”
To do this, the strategy calls for leveraging connections with local tech companies, finding new ways to support customized financing, increasing engagement between companies and universities for development and training, and exposing local companies to new technologies through visits to other tech markets.
In addition, the 10-year plan will involve an enhanced marketing strategy to highlight West Michigan as a hub for innovation.
For Wangler, the strategy will serve as a valuable opportunity to generate necessary buzz for the region.
“We need to start talking about all the cool things that are happening in West Michigan — all the cool companies, the great leadership that we have here locally, and the power of collaboration that happens in West Michigan that really is unique to our ecosystem,” she said.
“There’s a great story to tell.”