Innovate Marquette SmartZone Chosen to Participate in 2020 Rural Innovation Initiative

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(Innovate Marquette Smartzone logo) (WLUC)
Published: Jan. 13, 2020 at 7:40 AM EST
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Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. (RISI), has announced that the Innovate Marquette SmartZone has been chosen in a highly competitive process to participate in the 2020 Rural Innovation Initiative, a technical assistance program supporting rural communities working to create digital economy jobs with an innovation hub strategy.

The Rural Innovation Initiative is made possible through a cooperative agreement between RISI and the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The Initiative was launched in 2018 by the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) and its sister organization, RISI. In addition to the EDA, the Siegel Family Endowment and Walmart are providing funding for the Initiative. Rural LISC and Venable LLP are strategic partners.

“Marquette is already well-known as a great place to visit and retire, but it also has the potential to be a center of tech-powered innovation, entrepreneurship, and jobs,” said Matt Dunne, Executive Director of RISI and Founder of the Center on Rural Innovation. “There’s an opportunity to build a digital economy ecosystem in Marquette and small towns like it across the country because in the age of the internet, innovation is not limited to cities or the coasts. We are excited to partner with this team in the Rural Innovation Initiative to help realize their vision for creating resilient opportunities for generations to come.”

Ray Johnson, CEO of Innovate Marquette SmartZone, shares, “The opportunity to work with the RISI team now comes at a great time. We have a strong foundation to build on with the work our Marquette SmartZone, in partnership with Invent@NMU, has been doing over the last 5 years. We’ve created a lot of momentum to capitalize on with new organizations and initiatives in our eco-system that include Northern Michigan University’s Cybersecurity Institute, the region-wide Marshall Plan for Talent grant to advance cybersecurity education and regional economic development organizations like InvestUP.

Partnering with these organizations and additional regional stakeholders, including other U.P. SmartZones and public and private entities, helps Marquette and the greater Upper Peninsula region position itself as a model for how rural America can come together to catalyze growth, opportunity, and economic prosperity by helping to create new and support existing tech-based and tech-enabled businesses, entrepreneurs, and innovators.”

“We are excited to work directly with the Marquette SmartZone on this Initiative as a key partner,” says LucidCoast, LLC founder Keith Glendon. “The UP has a long history of innovators and entrepreneurs who helped the region thrive at the turn of the 20th century. We’re looking to harness the same gritty determination and direct it towards cutting edge business and job opportunities that will allow our kids to stay here or move back and enjoy a great lifestyle while also participating in the state, national, and global economy. As one of those kids who grew up here and spent close to 20 years trying to find a way back while working all over the world, I have a deep passion for opening our region to more balanced and sustainable economic opportunities."

"We’re being strategic about our industry focus areas and choosing those that balance our more traditional industries like tourism and mining. Right now, and in the years and decades ahead of us, tens of millions of jobs and whole new industries are being built on new economy innovations. Here in the U.P., that trend offers us exciting ways to sustain our way of life and our unique communities and environment.”

"The Rural Innovation Initiative aligns directly with InvestUP's mission to drive business and job growth across the Upper Peninsula,” says Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP. “Our membership and partners are committed to supporting innovation in our region, attracting and retaining talent, fostering collaboration across our communities and regional assets and creating New Economy opportunities that will balance our region's economic stability and raise the quality of life for all.

InvestUP has been working closely with Innovate Marquette and other partners across the UP in our mission and we're excited to participate in making the most of this opportunity for our communities, businesses and the future of the Upper Peninsula.”

Innovate Marquette SmartZone and other Rural Innovation Initiative participants will receive a range of support, from on-site and video conference time with RISI staff to opportunities for collaboration with similarly motivated communities, as well as templates and written resources as they execute an innovation hub strategy: an economic development model that works to educate and train local residents in digital skills, employ them in new economy jobs, and empower them to launch the startups that will drive their digital economies.

RISI will work with Innovate Marquette SmartZone and other participants to identify and prepare for federal and other funding opportunities that fit their unique attributes and goals. Some 2020 Rural Innovation Initiative communities may choose to apply for federal funding opportunities like the Regional Innovation Strategies program this year if they raise up to $750k in matching funds in the first half of the year, while others will focus first on establishing plans and partnerships to build their digital economy strategies. Participants will also have access to significant technical assistance to refine their economic development strategies, help them identify partnerships, and leverage existing resources.

The Rural Innovation Initiative launched in 2019 with nine participant communities. In its first year, the Initiative catalyzed $5.3 million in new investment in rural innovation hubs. More than 110 communities from 37 states and Puerto Rico submitted requests to participate in the technical assistance program this year.

The other 2020 Rural Innovation Initiative participants are:

• Ada Jobs Foundation, Ada, Oklahoma

• Southern Utah University Business Resource Center, Cedar City, Utah

• Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs (SCAPE), Durango, Colorado

• Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), Pikeville, Kentucky

• University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Platteville, Wisconsin

• Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio

• Staunton Creative Community Fund, Staunton, Virginia

• Taos HIVE, Taos, New Mexico

• Central Maine Growth Council, Waterville, Maine

“Momentum is building in small towns across the country for new strategies that leverage local assets and support sustainable economic success,” said Dunne. “These communities are taking forward looking approaches that foster entrepreneurship, catalyze startups, and support strong local digital economy ecosystems. We are excited to work in conjunction with EDA and these communities to change the narrative about what’s possible in rural America.”

Participating communities were selected because they are in designated rural counties according to U.S. Census definitions or consortiums of rural communities in close geographic proximity to one another.

Successful communities have a combination of the following attributes:

• Existing high-speed broadband;

• Available real estate, or significant portions of the community located in Opportunity Zones and/or New Market Tax Credit census tracts;

• A relationship with a four-year endowed residential college or university campus willing to partner in this effort; and

• A nonprofit organization prepared to lead the initiative.

RISI is also creating a virtual network to support capacity building, link innovation hubs, enable communities to make connections to new sources of capital, expand their networks with national technology leaders, and secure digital economy jobs for remote workers in their communities.

RISI works with its sister organization CORI to achieve sustainable economic success in small town America. The first round of the Rural Innovation Initiative in 2019 catalyzed $5.3 million in new investment in rural innovation hubs in three small towns and brought nine communities into the virtual network. CORI developed and regularly updates the Rural Opportunity Map, a suite of data visualization and mapping tools to help local leaders, national policymakers, investors, and donors see the potential in rural America.