The Right Place seeks tech transformation for Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids could become a major tech hub for the Midwest as an economic development organization seeks to craft a new 10-year strategy.

The Right Place Inc. earlier this month shared a report with a vision to grow the technology sector in the greater Grand Rapids area. The strategy foresees the creation of 20,000 new jobs in technology over the next decade, bringing the sector to 10% of all regional jobs.

The strategy is the result of months of intensive research and strategic planning with hundreds of business, academic and community leaders from across the region. The Right Place brought together leaders in the fall of 2021 as part of a technology task force to imagine what it would be like to position Grand Rapids as the Midwest’s own technology hub.

For Randy Thelen, President and CEO of The Right Place, technology 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 of economic growth, driving advancement and prosperity within their communities…this collaborative plan offers a detailed roadmap to realize our community’s bold vision and make it a reality.”

Led by co-chairs Steve Downing, CEO of Gentex, and Richard Pappas, president of the University of Davenport, the technology working group divided into three committees and engaged in several visioning sessions. Now, the committee’s work has resulted in a series of recommendations for The Right Place’s Board of Directors, as outlined in the 10-Year Strategy.

“A handful of opportunities have really surfaced around talent and innovation, 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 achieve the vision, the plan focuses on these three categories: talent, ecosystem and growth.

On the talent side, increasing the tech talent pool is critical to successfully executing the overall strategy, according to the report. The main objectives are to develop, educate, retrain and attract workers to the sector – starting with the grassroots.

“We recognize that building the pipeline will involve both short-term and long-term vision,” Wangler said. “We’re going to have to work with several different sectors, from K-12 schools through college, as well as boot camps and learning organizations, to create these tech jobs of the future.”

A big part of that will involve raising awareness of the opportunities Grand Rapids has to offer, according to Wangler.

“How do we take those parts of our community that haven’t considered themselves technologists and bring them up to speed?” she says. “How do we look at our K-12 schools and universities to educate, not just students, but also teachers, parents, and administrators?”

Supporting the next generation will allow the region’s strategy and growth to go beyond its ten-year benchmark. The report recommends increased exploration opportunities and exposure to technology careers in area schools, increased corporate support for technology-related programming in the K-12 system, and the creation of a framework for educators to integrate technological skills into 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 people with ties to the area, implementing strategic advertising in “brain drain” cities losing employees to the sector, and expanding the reach of local university programs and alumni relations.

Apart from nurturing students and attracting new talent, the strategy recommends retraining and honing existing talent to energize the pipeline. In a 2022 survey by Salesforce, 75% of 23,000 people surveyed in 19 countries said they did not feel ready to operate in a “digital first” world.

Western Michigan could create deployable models for recycling and retraining, partner with big tech companies and build on existing training programs, according to the strategy.

Regarding the 20,000 jobs mentioned in the strategy, Wangler said The Right Place looked at comparable cities to determine what was needed to reach the same levels as other tech hubs.

“We identified other similar communities and looked at their ecosystems and found similarities between our fledgling community here in Grand Rapids and where they were at this starting point,” Wangler said.

For the Grand Rapids ecosystem, the vision sees a cohesive environment in which entrepreneurs, startups, and businesses are empowered to pursue new ideas and scale their businesses.

Specific goals to boost the local tech ecosystem include using events, growing incubators and accelerators, supporting entrepreneurs, increasing density, and expanding broadband service through access Internet accessible and affordable throughout the region.

The report cites a decline in the share of seed and start-up investments in places like California’s Silicon Valley region in 2021, noting that venture capitalists are taking note of these trends and focusing on operations. in small 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 seems different than it did in pre- pandemic.

“I think the pandemic has pushed some aspects of technology forward faster,” Wangler said. “What we know in the tech industry is that they’ve always been able to work a little more remotely, a little more agile. But what the pandemic has done is it’s made us taught everyone that there are ways to work differently to be more effective.

Still, the strategy highlights flexible offices, like coworking spaces, as a valuable option for startups to establish a foothold and build 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 to the area can increase the visibility of existing businesses and encourage outside businesses to establish a presence here.

The third category of the report focuses on growth and the opportunity to position Grand Rapids as a place for future technology innovation and digital transformation.

According to the report, the top emerging technologies in the industry in West Michigan right now are cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and machine learning.

To remain competitive, businesses in the region will need to increasingly adopt digital technologies. This specifically relates to manufacturers, who according to Wangler account for 40% of the market in this region while the technology industry currently accounts for 6%.

“It’s important to understand our landscape in western Michigan,” she said. “We’re going to have to converge the technology sector with our other industries, like our manufacturing industry, to help create opportunities for growth both operationally and through product development in technology.”

To do this, the strategy calls for leveraging relationships with local technology companies, finding new ways to support tailored funding, increasing engagement between companies and universities for development and training, and exposing local businesses to new technologies through visits to other technology markets.

Additionally, the 10-year plan will involve an enhanced marketing strategy to highlight West Michigan as a hub for innovation.

For Wangler, the strategy will be a valuable opportunity to generate much-needed buzz for the region.

“We need to start talking about all the cool things happening in West Michigan – all the cool businesses, the great leadership that we have here locally, and the power of collaboration that’s happening in West Michigan that is really unique to our ecosystem,” she says.

“There is a great story to tell.”

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