MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) – Collaboration and opportunity are two words at the heart of a Capital Challenge grant secured by Innovate Marquette SmartZone.

The grant funding of $611,911 comes from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA).

This week, we spoke with Innovate Marquette SmartZone CEO Joe Thiel about the work it took to get the grant here and the potential it has to shape the future of the city and the surrounding area.

Innovate Marquette SmartZone on Presque Isle Ave.

“I would really like people to know that there are a lot of people working really really hard to make this happen. Sometimes things take longer than people expect around here. There are a lot of dedicated people who are here who love this area, who want this to be successful,” said Thiel.

Thiel said the grant was the result of months of work involving the collaboration of community partners.

“This grant was not just written by us. It was written by all of our partners, including NMU, InvestUP, and LSCP. We’ve all come together collectively to write this grant. We all sponsored the grant. We had more than 15 support letters for these grants, from the city, the university. That builds that up to the point where we’re working collectively and the federal government recognizes that saying, wow, we’ve got a whole organized, community ecosystem here that wants to do this together.”

To put the grant into perspective, there were 273 total applicants across the country. Only 50 were awarded grant money. Seven of those were rural communities. Three were in Michigan, and Marquette is the only location in the U.P.

“What this allows for is to create a professional investment hub here in Marquette, which is linked to our state (funding) resources, and linked to our national (funding) resources.” Thiel continued, “So essentially, Michigan right now is contemplating allocating about $200 million to start-up organizations in the state of Michigan through the SmartZones.” He continued, “What this allows us to do is have a professional organization to allocate those funds to entrepreneurs who need it.”

Thiel told us how the money is being placed into the Make It Marquette Start to Scale project. He described it as similar to crowd-funding but more formalized as a student-enrichment program through crowd micro-gifting to pay students to help entrepreneurs to get their business organized and ready for launch.

Washington Street in Downtown Marquette

“In the early stage, it’s really hard for clients, especially in the U.P. to gain really early stage capital to help get their businesses to the point of preparation and give them a really high probability of success through investment.” Thiel says that the EDA Grant funding the Make It Marquette Start to Scale Project will help fill a gap in our economic ecosystem. “What the outcome of that is, let’s say ten companies per year that have worked their way through that whole ecosystem, including the initial investment from Make It Marquette Start to Scale, to become invested in a real way to put the business on the map here. What the outcome of that is our talent that is within those different businesses that we’re supporting have a real chance to stay and work for those startups. The need to leave the area diminishes as those exciting and well paying jobs stay, when the companies providing them are nurtured here.”

What Innovate Marquette is doing is creating another option to cultivate startups and businesses to utilize an existing talent pool in the area.

As for the grant awarded to Innovate Marquette SmartZone, what happens next is a number of meetings with the U.S. Economic Development Association (EDA). Then they will work with the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) which is a national partner, as well as local stakeholders.

Third Street in Marquette

When we asked what this means for the community, Thiel said, “opportunity.”

“We don’t want 40,000 people coming back right now. Over time, this will be one of the most desirable places to live in the country. We want to make sure we keep and maintain our local heritage. At the same time grow and maintain a sustainable economy. That means doing it intentionally, slowly, and sustainably.”

Thiel said it is important to maintain the heritage of the U.P.

“We can as a collective up here maintain our heritage and maintain those those things that are really important things to us. I don’t want to have to go out to the trail and wait 45 minutes to get on a trail. I don’t want that to happen. So by collectively getting together and building upon these wins as a community, we can be strong enough at some point to say, hold on, we’re going to take our time with this and do it right. That’s our goal.”

Learn more about the Innovate Marquette SmartZone here.