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Melissa Price and Detroit’s dPOP continue to reinvent the way downtown Detroit workers make and do

|This article appeared originally in the February 2016 edition of Bellow Press|

By John Q. Horn

The physical aesthetics of the American workplace has transformed.

Enormous, glass-encased conference rooms, hideaway work pods, popcorn machines and pinball are the new beige. Functionality, design and how a company introduces its story to visitors has superseded the significance of the receptionist’s desk.

And nobody exemplifies that reinvention more than Melissa Price and her Detroit-based company, dPOP

We say, “her company,” because Price is the CEO. But dPOP rests comfortably under the umbrella of ownership of billionaire and Founder and Rock Holdings and Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert. He also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers. And at some point of every busy day, he makes it a point to let team members know that they have value. Gilbert’s CEOs, VPs and others do the same. To call is “rah-rah” is being tame. Rock Holdings not only includes Quicken Loans, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Fathead, there are corporate sponsorship relationships with NASCAR, The PGA Tour and the Detroit Lions.

Gilbert set the standard for development in downtown Detroit when, in 2010, he relocated his suburban mortgage company headquarters in the middle of a drowsy Central Business District, its bored workers and overwhelming plentitude of empty, aging skyscrapers.

 

doppurple

In five years, Gilbert would sire 92 companies and acquire dozens of buildings in and around central downtown, while spending more than $2 billion in the process. And it all started, much like dPOP!, when the company moved in to the former Compuware Building in Campus Martius Park at the city’s urban core.

When that building opened, it marked a landmark unveiling for Price and her Facilities team. It would lead to the formation of dPOP, ushering in a new jack movement fortifying downtown Detroit and establishing sustainability for generations.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

For Price, that includes not only the recent transplants now working downtown but to those stalwarts who have always been here. She said she recognizes that calling Detroit’s growth-resurrection a “comeback,” could be considered by many as a poor choice of words.

“It’s not a rebirth,” she said. “There are so many community members who have cared and curated through the years. They’ve been here the whole time.”

She earned the crown when she moved downtown last year, setting up shop in a renovated Albert Kahn-designed apartment building, The Albert, blocks from dPOP’s stunning space, The Vault.

“Living downtown is a great bit of pride,” she said. “Not only is my business downtown, but I live here too.”

And what a business. What an amazing, significant, necessary business operation she leads and guides. During the most dismal years, downtown Detroit office space had a 47-percent occupancy rate. That number is rapidly on the uptick, with more than 150,000 people working downtown, including 15,000 who, like Price, work for Gilbert-owned companies.

People Matter

Its swell became noticeable to outsiders with Gilbert moving Quicken Loans to the Compuware Building from suburb to city in 2010, just two years after an pic mortgage crisis that fed like a host virus on the nation’s crippling recession.

“That was a tough time,” Price said. “Dan made sure that the emphasis was ‘every single minute, every day, every lever we can pull, we need to make sure our clients are safe and happy.’

“They were strategizing on caring about the people-side first.”

Gilbert was committed to moving downtown, irrespective of the commercial housing market. And Price’s facilities and purchasing knowledge would have a role so significant in that transition that it can be described only as hemispheric in its size and scope.

“There was a lot of energy and passion behind that move,” Price said. “Compuware was the first building.”

Bedrock, Gilbert’s massive property management company, now holds clean title to 85 buildings.

But in her salad days, Price, who was raised in Florida and moved to Detroit at age 21, started with Quicken in IT on the help desk. She would later advance to IT project management.

Positions morph. Companies grow and adapt, and Price did just that.

“I was doing all of the purchasing and contract buying,” she said, of outside vendors and assorted tradespeople. That experience proved invaluable when it was time to move. In terms of equipment, space, design and functionality, she knew exactly what everyone needed.

 

dpop1

Price and her team took all 500 employees, to a crosstown move that, years later, would later usher in 15,000 company team members.

In crafting the look of Compuware, Price shattered conventional design expectations and assumptions of the brave new workplace. Beaming, bold colors rage in in a pop-out work pod with a killer view that can hold only only three people. Cool, soothing-colored walls do their work in a different space, maybe a roomy, built-for-12 conference room. Price embedded casual and comfortable work concepts that married up to prominent levels of functionality. Dynamic and inspiring breakout work spaces. Transparent conference rooms. Isolated work areas where it’s quiet and calm as you employees need it to be. Commanding color schemes in high-use kitchens keep you awake. A high-end cafeteria with every taste and lifestyle sated is at the read. The world’s largest indoor water structure is sin the lobby. You should see the nap pod.

It was so impressive, other companies wanted a tour.

“As all of that was happening, companies wanted to tour our building,” Price said. “This was all day. It turned in to a full-time job.”

The more outside decision-makers saw of the space Price and her team created, the more they liked. And they wanted Price to do something similar for them. dPOP then was birthed.

When Bedrock buys a mothballed skyscraper, Price and her crew are the first to walk through, and commence strategizing on how to convert previously unused space into something magnificent. Nearly mummified, these countless structures still retain rich architectural DNA and unrivaled hand-crafted detail.

That’s when the ideas start. And it results in plans, execution and installation, conceptualizing and deep-diving to the core of what the company represents. Price eventually reveals a space that ultimately looks like no place you’ve ever worked, coupled with the functionality unlike anywhere you’ve ever been. And this, from a heap of empty office space most people wrote off.

“To be able to walk through and see those spaces, to bring it back, the craftsmanship, the trades; not everyone gets to unravel something like that,” Price said. “That’s a real honor. We are the first to work on it. It’s stunning, it’s humbling, to be able to figure out how to bring a building back.”

 

dpop2 bank

Working for Gilbert, Price and her Facilities team where charged with one building that would later into 85 buildings. That’s a lot of conference rooms, kitchens, restrooms, elevators, work stations, storage and parking.

Jennifer Gilbert is Chairperson of dPOP, wife of Dan Gilbert and deeply embedded in these massive undertakings.

“I am always inspired by Melissa Price’s creativity and passion for designing spaces that are both innovative and purposeful. With her guidance, the dPOP team is revolutionizing the environments in which people live, work and play. dPOP’s designs are far more than just pretty spaces; they foster innovation and collaboration for those who work in them.

“At dPOP, our clients are as diverse as the industries from which they originate. One common thread across the board, however, is the importance placed on culture. Our work fosters vibrant company cultures and vibrant company cultures help businesses thrive.”

|images courtesy of dPOP|

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This article article appeared originally in the February 2016 edition of Workspace Magazine, published by Bellow Press in Grand Rapids.

 

Detroit Business Incubator Reinvents How Detroit Works

By John Q. Horn

Grand-scale manufacturing loss, staggering crime and a national economic recession sank of a lot of middle-tier cities. Detroit, for decades, was one of them.

But, an invigorating entrepreneurialism – even in small pockets on the fringes of a now-bustling downtown – is creating an innovative approach to work where the automotive assembly line that made Detroit great is being complemented by a steady line of small business owners intending to make the city greater.

When Detroit needed to rethink how it approached work – following an auto industry collapse, a federal government bailout that came with it; and a corrupt city government leading to bankruptcy and emergency management assistance – reinventing Detroit’s work identity unraveled unconventionally.

Billionaires like the late Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Illich, and Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert, Roger Penske and others, have been moving people and companies toward the Central Business District by the tens of thousands into buildings that were for decades empty, aging, eyesores. This has generated a downtown pulse that once barely registered.

Equally critical to the city’s health are the entrepreneurs and small business creationists filling the gaps of a city’s workforce and its path to becoming again whole. With countless manufacturing jobs disintegrating in both the city and suburbs, Detroit required a solution outside of the billionaires. Ponyride, a collaborative bricks-and-mortar workspace, galloped onto the landscape, bringing with it a zephyr of small business generation and community-based entrepreneurship.

 

ponyride exeterior

Back in 2005, Phil Cooley bought real estate along a then-empty and silent Michigan Avenue, inserting in it what would become the city’s signature restaurant, Slow’s Bar BQ. Through that success, Cooley and his associates would make more investments in Detroit. In 2010, the foreclosed property at 1401 Vermont caught his eye, as Cooley said he sought space to live and work. At 30,000 square feet, the bank said it would take $100,000 for the property. But for that sweet price, Cooley would need to convert it into a multiple-use space. He met with community members for feedback. The result is the rebirth of an empty structure, named Ponyride, packed with a litany of small businesses that all got their start or grew there.

“We want a workspace that encourages people the way Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were, before they were successful, old and rich,” Cooley said. “Small businesses and entrepreneurs need to exist and create jobs. “

And that’s precisely what is happening. Kate Bordine Cooley, Phil’s wife and owner of Our/Detroit, a vodka distillery and tasting room merely blocks away, said they let the community tell them what the space should be and “organically folks showed up needing space. Bit by bit, the spaces in Ponyride have grown into what they are now. We have a café, co-working space, textiles, metal and wood studios.”

 

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Specifically, there are dozens of work areas carved out for small business entrepreneurs to create and distribute wares. Among them is a professionally built dance space, a recording studio, a coffee café, the makers of Beard Balm, Detroit Denim (and their $250 jeans), Dirt Apparel (urban-influenced clothing), The Line Studio and their glorious furniture with concrete countertops and Floyd, a progressive furniture manufacturer catering to smaller living spaces with pieces that attach to any surface to convert to a table-bed system.

“It’s a Democratic space,” Cooley said. “Why should tech be with just tech? Or manufacturing with just manufacturing? We don’t want to isolate people. It’s not textbook to have a quiltmaker next to a hip-hop dance teacher.”

Nothing about Detroit is, or ever will be, textbook. It’s always been tough in this city.

Detroit went from hey-day vibrant, to grossly violent, to complacently desolate, to laughably corrupt, to, literally, bankrupt. This pattern required five-plus decades of sweetheart deals and immoral bookkeeping. All while the rest of the nation watched, contorting its nose as if amid flatulence. It would seem logical that the decades it took for Detroit to de-evolve should be congruent to the time it will take for the city to again feel whole – a state many considered incomprehensible.

“To throw away that infrastructure is foolish. But, also, it’s the tenants themselves, the way they share resources, tools and ideas,” Cooley said. “Lazlo (a company housed in Ponyride) has a guy working for him who just got out of prison.”

Bordine Cooley supported the assertion that co-working, especially at Ponyride, crystallizes the way new work is being done in Detroit.

“When the Jit Crew said they needed a dance studio, we gutted a room that was once eight separate offices and laid down a reclaimed gymnasium floor,” she said.

Dance studio space cost $10 per hour to rent, and includes lessons, recitals, events and parties. Most workspace is $300 per month. The waiting list is currently at 200 people with great ideas. Ponyride quickly went from incubator to white-hot oven.

Ponyride is home to The Empowerment Plan, an organic operation bringing together homeless women and puts them to work. Their finished product is a thick, down jacket that converts to a sleeping bag, designed specifically for those living on the streets. The hum of 20 sewing machines at a time is nearly symphonic, once the humanitarianism of it all washes over you.

 

sewing 1

Cassie Coravos, business and communications manager of The Empowerment Plan, says the organization provides twice-weekly GED classes through Pro-Literacy Detroit. It assists with online college courses, finding viable housing and involving members with financial literacy through Level One Bank. It offers resources and support, including everything from onsite temporary housing to vehicle acquisition and repair.

“Ponyride has been a great space to be a part of,” Coravos said. “We love being part of this community, but we are quickly outgrowing our space. We currently have 20 seamstresses. We want to hire more and make more coats, and we are near capacity in our current space.”

Detroit SOUP also operates out of Ponyride. It’s not so much a café, rather, an open-air forum where guests enjoy locally sources soup and salad, paying $5 for both comfort food and a vote, listening intently to at least four locals pitch their products and ideas. These range from urban farming, to legal fees for the wrongly accused, to education and technology initiatives – many born from bare-bones, grassroots projects.

People eat, listen, vote and reward. The five-year-old program has raised more than $85,000 for independent projects in Detroit. It’s a council of community-minded Detroiters and their suburban neighbors putting up $5 at a time to help fund an entrepreneur’s dream. Yeah, someone has an idea for a garden on a beat-down lot and that night’s Detroit SOUP brought in $400 for the endeavor. That’s $400 that wasn’t there before. And like the business incubator space that also wasn’t there, so is a presence of support that didn’t previously exists. Be it $10 or $100,000, in Detroit, in the right hands, it makes a difference.

Joanna Dueweke is a community activist and content strategist. She is also the director of Detroit SOUP, and she describes perfectly the position in which Detroit, and its work culture, finds today.

“Nothing about Detroit can be traditional anymore,” she said. “We have to change so the city can change and prosper in new and different ways.”

New and different should be on the welcome mat.

Like The Empowerment Plan, whose founder Veronika Scott started by herself with a modest Detroit SOUP grant, the path to crafting a dream where soon-to-be-former-Detroit women could make a warm coat-sleeping bag for their sweet brethren and sisterhood, these things take time.

Creating coworking space and connecting with a community to make it feasible is embryonic in the larger glimpse. Putting the right resources in a place like Ponyride sharpens the focus for those who want it.

“Three and a half years ago, it was just Veronika,” Phil Cooley said. “Now look at it. That’s five years. That takes some heavy lifting. I hope there is more patience.”

 

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Saving money to buy a home can be daunting and off-putting, to the point where one thinks, “screw it, it’s easier just to stay in this apartment.” For those who wish to have a home, build equity and root down just a bit deeper in a corner of their world, mortgage companies and other lenders have programs that indeed make it easier — from plans as low as %1 — %3 down, to lucrative options for veterans (both retired and active duty) and, with some bird-dogging with other companies, home buying down payments with as little as zero down do exist, depending on your circumstance. But one Detroit company, BoostUp.com, is making it about easy as possible to raise that down payment. You just have to hustle bit.

BoostUp.com is a crowdsourcin tool. At its cores, this means you’re asking people for money to acheive a goal of yours. This is not a bad thing. Friends — and those you recently became acquainted or know only in a fringe capacity;  but know nonetheless — belive ir or not, want to see greatness in you, even if they don’t know ou so well. They feel this way so they can harbest the dormant greatness they’re missing in themselves.

Yes, you’re soliciting friends and family for donations to get yourself into a house (or, in some cases, a car). If they care about you, they’ll kick down $20 or $80. This can replace so many well-meaning but missing-the-mark birthday, holiday or wedding gifts. The full story was publishing on Zing, the official Quicken Loans company blog, and can be read in full, glorious, entiterity here.

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Jonas Gray’s breakout NFL game leaves his Pontiac family stunned with pride

By John Q. Horn

It has been a November to never forget for one Detroit intern. And it’s not because the boss gave him the full-time job he coveted.

While most metro Detroit families this Thanksgiving are stuffed with gratitude and football, one family is covered in both. Few could’ve bounced as high in the workplace the last few weeks as Corinthian “Cori” Gray. The 22-year-old is a communications intern at the Detroit Zoo. And he continues to gleam thanks to a phenomenal effort from his older brother that assuredly put a greater shine on Thanksgiving this year.

Cori’s brother, Jonas Gray, is an NFL running back for the New England Patriots. A few weeks ago, Jonas flew Cori and his mother Jerri to Lucas Oil Field Stadium in Indianapolis for the Patriots-Colts game. Jonas wasted little time welcoming his family to game day; he scored his first NFL touchdown in the first quarter. His 4-yard run gave New England an early lead.

Still beaming, Jerri and Cori barely had time to catch their breath before Jonas scored a second touchdown – this one from 2 yards out – before halftime. Jonas scored twice again in the second half.

Jonas broke off not 1, but 4 rushing touchdowns, in a single game. Literally, he became a headline overnight. NFL writer Peter King of The Monday Morning Quarterback gushed over his performance. Two days later, Jonas was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The next day, the NFL named him AFC Player Of The Week.

“When Jonas scored that first touchdown, my mom and I were screaming, going crazy,” Cori said. “His second TD, we were shocked. At halftime, a friend texted me saying Jonas already had 101 yards. I texted back, ‘just watch.’

“When he scored the third time, I was thinking ‘this can’t be real.’ And when he got the fourth touchdown, I hugged my mom and, I’m not even gonna lie, cried. We hugged. We didn’t move.”

Jonas Gray’s day to shine in the NFL led to a 42-30 New England win, earning the Pats first-place at 8-2 in the AFC East. New England hosted Detroit in Week 12, killing the Lions, 34-9.

Undrafted from Notre Dame in 2013, Jonas Gray signed with and was later released by Miami. He was picked up by Baltimore, landing on the practice squad there before joining New England. Injuries to the Pats’ running back corps at that time cleared a spot for serious playing time for him in Week 11.

 

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Gray finished his breakout game against the Colts with an eye-popping 201 yards on 37 carries. He was targeted once for an incomplete pass.

“After the game,” Cori said, “Jonas came to us and he was just as cool as he could be. Confident. He said this game was nothing compared to what’s about to come.”

That’s some big talk, as it should be, for a galvanized family of three that coalesced on city streets oftentimes more grim than not. In neighborhoods with not a lot of opportunities for youth, attaining goals gets tricky quickly.

“Nobody expected much from us,” Cori said.

 

Mom Means Business

What a terrific undoing of perception. Expectations shift swiftly. Perception can be reality. And a cop mom raising two boys by herself in a tough town is going to go in one of two directions. Parts of Pontiac are no joke.

Jerri Gray is a 15-year veteran of the Pontiac Police Department. This has included work in:

  • Vice
  • Narcotics
  • Juvenile sex crimes
  • Crime scene investigations
  • And yes, mountain bike patrol in the downtown nightlife/drunky-obnoxious detail.

Jerri Gray has walked the beat while marching to her own.

Both Jerri and Cori agree that the cornerstone of their upbringing was a never-quit attitude instilled and upheld by Mom.

“I kept the boys pretty busy and never let them quit,” Jerri said. “Even when Cori started playing the trumpet, I told him ‘Once you start this, you have to finish it.’ And I was serious.”

Cori says that Jerri’s confidence and encouragement evolved into a roadmap for their success. But that same love came also with a steep price to pay for stepping out of line.

“My mom is 5 feet 7 inches. And she don’t play,” Cori said, laughing.

 

Check This Out, Bro

Jonas texted Cori a mockup of the Sports Illustrated cover coming out the next day. Player of The Week honors followed; and that, after a 4-touchdown dream game by their brother and son, the Grays on this Thanksgiving weekend might still be over the moon.

Cori continues his internship at the Detroit Zoo, cutting his public relations chops by writing press releases, coordinating events and working as a liaison between media and the Zoo. He also works full time at D1 Sports Training, a factory of high-end conditioning and training for the serious athlete, co-owned by Detroit Lions defensive end Ndamukong Suh and former tight end Tony Scheffler.

Moms like Jerri are proud of their boys, be it the gridiron or the sandbox. Jerri’s Sunday was almost other-worldly. Her son, in his first NFL game where he really saw meaningful playing time, scored an unimaginable 4 touchdowns.

The NFL record for single-game touchdowns by a running back is 5, a title held by five players. More than 50 running backs have scored 4 times in one game. Gray joins the annals with such running back legends as Earl Campbell, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders.

The Grays hope more Sundays are like Week 11. In the interim, Jerri assures that Sundays in her home continue to see her sacred, end-of-the-weekend routine  thrive – breakfast, church, and then back home to start cooking and dialing up the slate of NFL games on TV. That’s not much different than the plans of most football fans on a Sunday. But at Jerri’s house, she could be watching her own son on game day.

John Horn can be reached at hornjq@gmail.com. Additional work can be viewed at www.johnqjournalist.com

 

Update: Jonas Gray is in the process of making amends for arriving late to practice Nov. 21, a mistake leading to plenty of Internet headlines and a dismissal from the team’s facility for a day, courtesy of coach Bill Belichick. Jonas did play in the Week 12 game against the Lions.

Jonas Gray wasn’t the only running back in New England to make news that week. The Patriots signed recently released running back LeGarrette Blount Nov. 20. Blount’s presence and the improved health of running back Shane Vereen – ahead of Gray on the club’s depth chart — could minimize Jonas’s opportunities as the Patriots march toward the playoffs.

In the Week 12 matchup against Detroit, Gray registered no carries for 0 yards in a 34-9 Pats win.

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The on-loan property on which they’ve been urban farming has been sold to a developer who will, literally, put down a parking lot. So, now what? I spoke recently with Padraic Ingle, director of Grow Saginaw about his next move. Read more here.

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By John Q. Horn

You can’t help but notice them, as they (not so) slowly sprout up around the state; these enormous, stark white windmills. Not traditional windmills evocative of a Dutch postcard, rather, these are sleek, aerodynamic wind turbines, and they are progressively turning Michigan’s agricultural land into wheelhouses for clean, renewable energy.

Wind farms have been built in the Thumb, mid-Michigan and the western side of the state–and the Upper Peninsula will soon be home to its first wind facility. Heritage Sustainable Energy of Traverse City is erecting upward of 13 turbines in Delta County on the Garden Peninsula. Garden Wind Farm should be completed before year’s end. Each turbine is expected to generate 5,000 megawatt hours of energy per year. One turbine was completed at the end of 2011.

According to Delta Township Supervisor Morgan Tatrow, the project is still on pace for 2012 completion.

“It’s very much on track,” he says.

He said 13 concrete bases have been installed. From early to mid-June, 125 to 130 semi trucks are expected to roll into Delta Township with the remaining turbines and their components. With newfound usage for previously unused or under-used agricultural property, the creation of new jobs, new tax base revenue and a continued renewable energy source, Tatrow said the ripple effect on the Upper Peninsula community is welcomed.

“I do see it as a good thing,” Tatrow says. “Seventy-five local workers are working, which is a boost. This has a big impact on the whole county and it could for the rest of the Upper Peninsula as well.”

In mid-Michigan’s Gratiot County, near Breckenridge, 133 wind turbines went live at the end of 2011. Built by General Electric, these turbines are 460 feet high and are expected to generate more than 200 megawatts of electricity for 50,000-plus homes for nearly 20 years. An average two-story home uses about 50 kilowatts per day, or 1,500 kilowatts per month.

Of the 133 turbines, 58 are owned by DTE Energy; the rest are owned by Chicago-based Invenergy, which, seven years ago, first explored the area, asking residents if they would be willing to lease land. So, why Gratiot County?

“We have good wind,” says Donald Schurr, president of Greater Gratiot Development. “It’s not as good as the Thumb or lakefront communities, but at the 10,000-foot level, there is a little sweet spot and we are in that spot.”
The process works like this:

  • A privately held company studies wind activity in a specific region. If viable, it approaches local land owners about leasing their land to house the turbines. They work with residents and local governments to move forward.
  • Once approved by land owners and local officials, a land bank is created, crews are brought in and turbines are erected.
  • The wind turns the turbines’ blades, creating electrical energy stored on a grid. Part of that energy is sold to power companies like DTE. The rest is housed and distributed.

Successful wind farms need a place to collect the energy and tie into a power grid. Gratiot County has that, thanks to the presence of a closed refinery in the community and a former Tier-1 automotive factory.

“The lines are still around,” says Schurr.

Things appear to be working out well. Schurr says Des Moines-based wind farm developer Excelon has already started Phase I this summer of a second wind farm in Gratiot County. Beebe Community Wind Farm LLC is expected to be operational by the end of 2012, with 38 new turbines generating energy just south of Gratiot Wind.

Construction in the county created 150 jobs for the first farm in Gratiot County. About 15 employees will work full-time in engineering and maintenance on the property.

Schurr said 250 families were involved in leasing 35,000 acres, with property owners getting $70-$80 per acre.

And while it appears to be a win-win-win with the wind, not everybody is overjoyed.

In the U.P.’s Garden Peninsula, residents have made their opposition clear. Some don’t want to have to look at the towers. Others are concerned about the safety of migratory birds like bald and golden eagles (and some bats), who could face a shocking end while negotiating these huge, very strong fan blades in their flight corridors.

Opponents have peppered local officials and wind farm developers with questions and concerns.

Michigan’s Fish and Wildlife Service has been aggressive in working with companies like Heritage to establish best practices. FWS Field Supervisor Scott Hicks says the Garden Peninsula development is a proving ground to see how disruptive–if at all–construction projects like this will be to aviary preservation.

According to Hicks, FWS has conducted dozens of studies on flight paths, seasonal travel patterns and other data to identify and forecast if birds such as bald and golden eagles, as well as bats, will be displaced or in danger due to the presence of the turbines. He says Heritage has been cooperative with compliancy requirements on the company’s end as well. “I think they are sincere in their efforts in working with us,” Hicks says. “Developers can avoid migratory corridors and other areas that may have higher risks for wildlife by working with us and the DNR early in the process. There’s no question that working together we can significantly reduce wildlife impacts.”

Photos by Avram Golden

John Horn has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, including 12 as a freelance writer. He has covered city government, crime, real estate and sports for both community newspapers and large, metro dailies. He has written extensively about dining and drinking in and around Detroit for numerous clients, locally, nationally and internationally. He loves the city. He loves up north. He loves his wife Kerry, their toddler daughter Maeve, their 80-pound Labradoodle, Lamont, and the Detroit Tigers. In that order.

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It’s one thing for an organization to fill a niche that leads to success and growth. That’s a goal of most companies.

It’s an entirely different dynamic to fill said niche while simultaneously helping other companies grow, especially when your wheelhouse is stocked with a dream team of scientists, researchers and technology experts.

And amid high-end, industry-changing research and development collaborations, the Michigan Molecular Institute has gone one further, doing this little thing called sustaining a community. They do that by being the rigid information technology backbone to numerous mid-Michigan nonprofit health and human services agencies. These are the folks that, among so many other things, help keep food in the fridge and hot water running in homes of countless families who need a hand up.

This, coming from a Midland-based research powerhouse that takes scientific- and technology-based exploration to unprecedented heights.

MMI is a nonprofit contract research organization that uses state and federal funding and grants to provide research and development that crosses multiple platforms for companies big and small. It also yields a wide array of successful results, and has been doing so for more than 40 years.

The institute has a hand in several enterprises, from fulfilling an organization’s analytical needs, to designing and manufacturing specialty dendrimers and polymers. Dendrimers are synthetically engineered molecules that can be developed into practically applied products. They also serve as the motors in nanotechnology machines that can eventually deliver everything from insulin within a human body to battery power. Polymers are large molecules composed of many smaller ones.

 

MMI operates on an unusual model: It uses a third party to get in touch with potential collaborative partners, and itself is a nonprofit. Their partner could be a company in Texas looking to elevate the performance of a sealant they’ve been making for 20 years; it could be a start-up in Bangkok that is inventing a new line of state-of-the-art medical equipment. MMI’s role is to help bring those cutting-edge technologies together and bring practical products to market.

Not your average chief research officer, Dr. Steven Keinath is a senior research scientist program manager at MMI. He says MMI’s layered skills set is the mechanism that has enabled the company to grow into a diverse tech-based research organization.

“We really are more than just a research organization,” Keinath said. “Over the years, we have spun off for-profits that enter into joint ventures.”

One of those for-profits–Dendritech, Inc.–became MMI’s entry into the commercial production of the above-mentioned dendrimers. Launched in 1992, when nobody else was doing it, MMI found success swiftly.

“MMI was probably one of the first commercial houses to do it,” Keinath says. “Now, Dendritech is the largest commercial producer of dendrimers.”

Keinath says they saw this first-hand in a past National Science Foundation program. There, MMI officials met a company needing a coating material with an anti-fouling agent that would stop organisms from building up on surfaces. It was a coating for boat hulls to keep zebra mussels from attaching.

“MMI accomplished this by using a dendritic form,” Keinath says. “They refrain from attaching. It’s a nice way of carrying a chemical repellant agent that isn’t released.”

 

Creating a from-scratch chemical application that leaves no negative footprint. Imagine that.

And as good as MMI is at generating leading-edge scientific developments, it applies that same drive to secure monies to keep this high-tech party going. The boat hull research and development was carried through with Small Business Innovation Research grants and funds from the National Science Foundation. With help from the state’s energy department, MMI became schooled in pursuing federal grants to research, develop and commercialize new breakthrough technology innovations, says Mark Clevey, who works in technical assistance at the Bureau of Energy Systems.

“They excelled in these programs and we were able to secure several million in research dollars as well as several million in private-sector investments to commercialize the successful research results,” Clevey says. “MMI is a fine example of how government invests in technological advancement in the U.S.”

Another for-profit spin-off of MMI is Oxazogen, launched in 1996 and established to chase federal monies. Practical applications of these pursuits include batteries and fuel cell research and development. Another MMI group is Impact Analytical. That organization provides top-shelf analytical and chemical services to companies working in pharmaceuticals and plastics, among others.

However, some of its most rewarding and impactful work could come from its subsidiary, the Midland Information Technology Consortium. Launched in 2000 and sponsored by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, MITCON provides comprehensive IT services and support to a large group of other area nonprofits. These clients are, for the most part, United Way-funded agencies. That’s 37 nonprofits, delivering critical health and human services to people in the state who can’t otherwise do it for themselves.

It takes a lot for these organizations to provide the assistance they do. It’s a sometimes thankless job with tricky funding and grueling behind-the-scenes work that often goes unnoticed. The last thing they need are rickety computers and low-grade servers to put their efforts in the weeds. MITCON takes care of all of it, from hardware to software, to everything in between.

“A lot of these nonprofits have similar IT needs,” Keinath says.

MMI has the tech research chops to define and change the game at the same time. By using the same drive and focus, mid-Michigan can expect the institute and its related companies to keep breaking new ground and taking bright ideas from conceptualization to reality–and supporting the community all along the way.

John Horn is a suburban Detroit-based freelance journalist.

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