Teh Greater Lansing Business Monthly

Your Business Connection
September 2006
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David Hollister leads the new Prima Civitas Foundation. Photo by Terri Shaver.  Mark Stowers of MBI is coordinator of the Lansing Regional SmartZone consortium board.Photo by Terri Shaver. 

Author :  Ann Kammerer

Public Joins Private to Grow Economy

Two initiatives involving organizations throughout the area will leverage the state’s history and resources to build an innovative future in mid-Michigan. With Michigan State University as a key player, the ventures will foster collaboration between industries and higher education to commercialize research and catalyze Michigan business in the future.

“It’s the role of the university to be a lightning rod,” said MSU President Lou Anna Simon. “Nationally, you see more higher education business partnerships being the framework around which economic development is going. Government is a part, but it’s the private sector-educational alliances that have had the greatest impact.”

The Prima Civitas Foundation and the Lansing Regional SmartZone represent two such alliances focused on attracting high-tech businesses and strengthening the economic big picture for citizens in a post-industrial, post-petroleum world.

Prima Civitas Foundation

There’s a small iron weight on David Hollister’s desk that holds more than paper.

“That’s the Wicked Witch of the West,” said Hollister as he points to the iconic black hat atop a crumpled cape. “She’s, of course, from the Wizard of Oz.”

But for Hollister, that knickknack with the words RUST BELT emblazoned on the base symbolizes why he’s tackling his newest challenge in Michigan’s economic development.

“We’re trying to melt this image, to destroy this image of Michigan as the Rust Belt,” said the former mayor of Lansing and former director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth. “I come at that every single day.”

As president of the Prima Civitas Foundation, Hollister is committed to transforming mid-Michigan’s economy into one of the most innovative in the world.

To do that, he’ll draw on education, business and government leaders--and the vision of MSU President Simon--to redefine the role of the land grant college to a world grant institution.

“Prima Civitas means first city, first state, first community,” said Hollister. “It’s a regional nonprofit that’s business directed, engages the university, and serves as broker for the university.”

Although housed in a former Lansing elementary school, Prima Civitas will push beyond the boundaries of neighborhoods, municipalities and cities to what Hollister said is key to Michigan's survival: regionalization--and in this case, the mid-Michigan region.

As defined by Prima Civitas, the mid-Michigan region has a northern most point of Mt. Pleasant, extends east to the Thumb, and cuts a wide swath south to the state line. Excluding metro-Detroit, the region is anchored by Flint, Lansing, Midland and Saginaw, represents 13 counties, and is home to 2 million people.

Prima Civitas was launched in spring 2006 in response to a nationwide study that examined thriving communities around the world. The common elements discovered among landmark communities were engaged universities and business-led revitalization programs.

Following the lead of other public-private partnerships such as Ann Arbor’s SPARK and Grand Rapids’ The Right Place, Prima Civitas aims to advance innovative economic development, commercialize university research, train and retrain Michigan’s workforce, and transform the region’s image.

“When you talk to a person in Shanghai, or in southern California or in Texas, you should be able to say with enthusiasm, if you want a problem solved, if you want something made, if you want something manufactured, created or designed, there’s only one place in the world that you’ve got to be,” said Hollister, “and that’s mid-Michigan. We’re innovative. We’re entrepreneurial. We have a history of getting things done.”

Hollister said that mid-Michigan is uniquely positioned to compete in a post-petroleum economy, replete with biobased industries. The university’s expertise in plant, animal and biobased sciences, the state’s natural resources, and an industrial infrastructure combine to create a “sweet spot,” Hollister claims, that can take off exponentially in the next three to five years.

“Stanford, MIT, Wisconsin, the University of Illinois . . . they crank out 100 or more new companies a year,” Hollister said. “MSU [has produced] about 27 over the last couple years.”

The job of Prima Civitas, Hollister said, is to work with university scientists to take “miraculous, mind-blowing things” and launch them into successful business ventures. The model to follow, he said, are companies like the Lansing-based Neogen, which spun off from crop science safety into a prosperous food- and animal-safety business.

Prima Civitas’ efforts to spin off research and to prepare workers for a biobased economy will be supported by private dollars and by one of 13 grants awarded nationally by the U.S. Department of Labor. The three-year, $15 million Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development Grant (WIRED) will be supervised by a steering committee called the Mid-Michigan Innovation Team, and coordinated through Prima Civitas.

“Part of what we see with Prima Civitas is an organization we can put together that will help us go faster and further,” said Simon. “Nationally, you do that through these kinds of university-business type initiatives . . . putting the new line in the old line to get people focused on what they can do.”

Lansing Regional SmartZone

The next generation of entrepreneurial revolutionaries will receive further encouragement to stay or locate in Michigan through the opening of the Lansing Regional SmartZone.

Closely linked to MSU and coordinated by the Michigan Biotechnology Institute, the last of the 11 SmartZones administered through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation intends to commercialize ideas, patents and various research and development efforts. The Lansing Regional SmartZone will include the area in and around the University Corporate Research Park and portions of Downtown Lansing and East Lansing.

“Part of our charter is to develop and commercialize in the biotech area,” said MBI President Mark Stowers of the 21-member consortium charged with attracting businesses in life sciences, advanced manufacturing and information technology. “We operate the only incubator and technology accelerator in the area, so it’s a natural fit for us.”

Joining MSU and MBI in the SmartZone are the cities of Lansing and East Lansing, Ingham County, Lansing Community College, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, the MSU Foundation, and the University Corporate Research Park.

Among the dozen or more businesses receiving assistance in the Lansing SmartZone through MBI’s business incubator are those in alternative fuels, nanotechnology and power electronics.

Since the inception of SmartZones in 2002, more than 315 businesses have located or expanded in the zones, resulting in more than 4,500 jobs and $600 million in private investment.

“There’s a lot of interest in applying the engineering and manufacturing skill that Michigan is famous for to new technology fields,” said Stowers. “We’re not sure that there’s a sunset. This is something that will go on.”

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