West Michigan Student Trek: Discovering Innovation in Manufacturing

Video Recap:

In the age of Facebook, Twitter and other “made-it-big” tech startups, many students associate entrepreneurship with developing the next coolest website or social app to change the world. So, why would a group of University of Michigan entrepreneurship students spend their Friday in western Michigan working with manufacturing companies?

When students grow up in a media frenzy of entrepreneurship celebrity, hearing constant “buzz” about who will invent the next-best-thing, it often it closes their minds to opportunities in innovation that are in their own backyard. At the College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE), our innovation philosophy is simple: strive to make something better than it is. This form of innovation is alive and growing in the Western side of the state, and the best way to show U-M students what it looks like is to take them there to experience it firsthand.

The CFE brought a select group of students on the Grand Rapids Entrepreneurs in Action Trek (GREAT) to work with entrepreneurs, major manufacturing companies and U-M alumni living and thriving in western Michigan. The day was focused on innovation in manufacturing; both in the framework of what companies are doing now, and in looking ahead to what they want to create for the future.

The first stop on GREAT was the Mol-Son manufacturing facility near Kalamazoo where students toured the plant and heard from the company’s Founder and President, and U-M engineering alum, Ron Molitor, on how an entrepreneurial perspective keeps his local company globally competitive. The key, he shared with the students, is to focus on finding the most creative and effective solution for the customer’s problem and constantly improving your methods to make it happen. Molitor further explained that he is able to keep his facilities in the U.S. through technology innovation: “Smart technology needs smart people and little labor. We have the smart people here, there is no advantage for us to be anywhere else.”

Hitting the road again, the students headed to Grand Rapids startup accelerator Start Garden, where they were presented with real business challenges from two major western Michigan manufacturing companies, Steelcase and Wolverine Worldwide. They broke out into small-group workshops to develop a solution to one of the challenges, and then presented their solutions as a pitching competition in front of a panel of local entrepreneurs. Post-its and sharpies were in high demand as the four teams worked through business model canvases and collaborated with business development employees from both companies. The takeaway: even existing companies are looking for new ways to be entrepreneurial.

The day concluded with an alumni-networking event for U-M students and graduates who had an opportunity to weigh in with their own ideas on how we can foster better collaboration throughout the state. One clear goal will be to increase opportunities for combining our talent pool and finding specific projects to work on together. The GREAT trip is just the first step towards figuring out ways we can incorporate the technology and manufacturing talent that is uniquely “Michigan” into our entrepreneurial education experience. Students and Alumni are united in their desire to have an impact in the state – we collectively believe that impact will last much longer than the six seconds it takes a Snapchat photo to expire.