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The New Ding Thing


Joe Thiel in the water

Nurturing what’s next and evolving the U.P. economy with Invent@NMU and Innovate Marquette

“I want to put a ding in the universe.” - Apple Founder Steve Jobs

As Invent@NMU enters its seventh year, the U.P., as a microcosm of the U.S., faces an altered economic landscape, uprooted workforce and momentous opportunity to revise and devise. The student-powered invention center, along with its partner parent Innovate Marquette SmartZone, is ready to nurture what’s next, with a sharpened focus, closer collaborations and fresh leadership.

One key initiative is the new “Make it Marquette” campaign, which intends to evolve the local economy by attracting remote workers, building a digital ecosystem and augmenting our outdoor recreation environment. 

“It will enhance what is already incredible about this place by attracting talent and businesses who value the lifestyle and community, and who see the potential here in work-life balance and in business growth opportunity,” said Joe Thiel ’04 BS, the new CEO of Innovate and executive director of Invent@NMU.

He is not alone in this vision.

Joe Thiel

"The competition for talent could shift to places that offer the best combination of quality of life, affordability and state-of-the-art ecosystems to support remote work, and the places that will compete the best are those that offer unique amenities—lakefronts like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula."

Joe Thiel ’04 BS

CEO of Innovate Marquette & Executive Director of Invent@NMU

A March Wall Street Journal article cited an ongoing shift accelerated by remote working, where smaller communities “can now develop and build their economies based on remote workers and compete with the big-city business centers and West Coast high-tech meccas that have long dominated the employment landscape.” The article predicts that “the competition for talent could shift to places that offer the best combination of quality of life, affordability and state-of-the-art ecosystems to support remote work,” and that “the places that will compete the best are those that offer unique amenities—lakefronts like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”  

Thiel stresses that Make it Marquette goes beyond attracting new residents. “It’s twofold: there are very innovative people here, and an influx of people wanting to downsize, simplify and focus on more personal aspects of life. Those two are pivotal points for our region.” Invent/Innovate and community partners seek to celebrate and support existing businesses, connect locals with remote work opportunities and expand the positive economic impacts to affordable communities surrounding the Queen City of the North.

Marquette was selected as one of 10 communities for the 2020 Rural Innovation Initiative sponsored by the U.S. Economic Development Agency (EDA) and awarded a $1.5 million grant to develop and access crowd funding mechanisms, venture capital opportunities and an angel investor network. Marquette and U.P. area economic development organizations are also aligning more closely to expand their outreach to the public, identify their areas of expertise and services and communicate more clearly what each can offer to budding business creators. 

“Retooling local economies for the industries of the future is no easy task,” said Craig Buerstatte, acting Director of EDA’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “This partnership and the time and resources these communities have committed to this effort are a great example of the team mentality required to make sustainable progress towards new jobs and economic development.”

Invent/Innovate and community economic development partners are also laser focusing on three areas of innovation to create an even more vibrant regional economy: sustainable, accessible and scalable opportunities and technologies. 

“Successful innovators define what they want to succeed in, and that is what we are doing as an innovation incubator,” said Thiel. 

“On the sustainability side, we are looking at potential growth areas such as hemp textiles, medicinal foods and food security, and how we might create reusable, recyclable materials from hemp or hardwood alternatives. These could be insulation, carbon neutral or carbon negative products. Can we remediate abandoned mine spaces for agriculture?”

Accessibility-wise the alliance is looking at new ways to enable everyone to enjoy our wonderful outdoor recreation activities, no matter their age, physical or mental ability. That can be challenging given the rugged and remote territory of the U.P. But we have U.P. ingenuity.

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Some other promising ideas in development

Scalable means that whatever the idea, product, process or business is, it can be grown to create more jobs and more impact than a small or single instance. Think of Amazon starting by selling only books. Or a kayak modified in a garage for a wheelchair-bound child, now available affordably and internationally. 

Finally, to make any of these ideas succeed, Invent/Innovate knows that connections, via news outlets, social media, websites, marketing and educational platforms, are key to communication and cohesion. 

While this is the focus moving forward, Invent@NMU has been hard at work assisting existing innovators. They provide low-cost support, research and expertise to 90 to 120 clients every year. About 60 move on to the idea incubation process. Ten will go into an accelerator based on their potential to create jobs in the Marquette community. Those that move on in the process tend to have five key characteristics of an entrepreneur, as defined by Invent@NMU: motivation, passion, vision, confidence and decisiveness. 

Thiel noted that “U.P. unicorns make up a significant portion of the bucket. They are super innovative U.P. folks who maybe invented something at camp.” Or following the tradition of the outboard motor being invented in the U.P., something that makes camp more fun. One of those unicorns is Brian Janowski, a local patent agent who has invented a replacement for a hatchet in “a new and innovative way.”

What's unique about Invent@NMU is that under the mentorship of Joe and five other staff members, a student team of twelve photographers, videographers, marketers, writers, mechanical engineers, industrial designers and project managers work closely with these innovators to research, refine, prototype and bring their business ideas to market.

“The biggest thing for me is the student enrichment,” Thiel said. “We want to continue to make that even better and keep them really engaged and excited.” Instead of working on different aspects of many projects that fit their skill set, Invent is transitioning to have a student work with a client through the entire process, and then get offered a job with these innovative companies they’ve helped launch.”

Putting their money where their mouth is, Invent recently hired three of their graduates into full-time positions. Over the years, their students have enjoyed a 99 percent job placement rate with other companies.

“The students are the future of everything. We learn a lot about them and hear culturally what they need. Their main goal is to do things that are fulfilling and have value for improving the world. They don’t want to make a lot of money, buy a house, start a family, like I did,” said Thiel. “So how do we create an environment for that mindset? It’s a big pivot from earlier generations.”

Thiel said that in his own life, “I’ve never lost my childhood creativity. What Northern provided me, aside from many wonderful professors, was structure. As an industrial engineering major, I learned engineering is a process. Free thinkers like me need to have structure and process—instead of just thinking and thinking.” Being on the football team and in student organizations, he also learned to work collaboratively with others and break down barriers.

Joe went on to many high-level positions within startups and had multiple successful exits. He has numerous patents and has received top innovation awards in everything from batteries to workout equipment. He has traveled around the world twenty times. His most recent company, LockOut, which couples Bluetooth and LED technology to instantly secure classroom doors (and is in hundreds of school districts), was being sold when the Invent/Innovate opportunity arose.

Thiel said it was perfect time to join the team. “There was a great infrastructure in place, excellent student and innovator support and a strong grant history and process, developed by Dave Ollila ’13 BS, Bob Eslinger and Ray Johnson.”

“The cool thing about this role is that I get to be creative all the time by working with our clients and students. I’m always researching the wildest stuff. That’s my favorite thing to do—find that solution, something that no one’s ever done.

“I’m here to make the community a stronger and better place and share everything I have to help do that.”


By Rebecca Tavernini ’11 MA

Photos by NMU student Shaquille Quamae Hall