TRAVERSE CITY — President John F. Kennedy urged the country in May 1961 to make a commitment to the space program.

Successfully completed when Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind July 20, 1969, Kennedy’s “moonshot” declaration was not only a statement, but the driving force behind space technological advancements and innovations for decades.

State and local officials believe the pieces are in place to do the same thing with the Blue Economy — and that there’s no better place to do it than Traverse City

With 234 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and more than 10,000 acres of lakes, Traverse Connect CEO Warren Call said the region is uniquely positioned and geographically blessed to become “the global epicenter” of the Blue Economy, even if the World Bank definition needs significant updating.

The Blue Economy is defined as “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystems.”

With 20 percent of the world’s freshwater in the Great Lakes, there’s no reason the definition can’t be expanded to include water without salt, he said.

“Innovation in the Great Lakes: The Blue Economy” was the subject of a panel discussion Thursday at the Great Wolf Lodge Conference Center. The panel was the final piece of Northern Michigan Startup Week, which had its own “Water Innovations” theme..

“We strongly feel Traverse City is the place for developing what we’re talking about today,” said Hans Van Sumeren, director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College.

Joining Van Sumeren on the panel were Call, Dana Lowell, co-founder of Lilypad Labs, Inc.; Denise Kay, co-founder and CEO of Enspired Solutions; and Prem Bodagala, director of Red Cedar Ventures and Michigan Rise.

At the start of audience questions, Chuck Meek said the ancillary technologies in place make Traverse City the “perfect petri dish” for freshwater innovation. Meek is the PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) Research and Developments Programs Lead for Cambrium Analytica in Traverse City.

Lowell, whose Holland-based Lilypad Labs company plans to have two solar-powered boats available for rent on Lake Leelanau later this summer, echoed Meek’s comment and is ready to speak it into existence. Lilypad aims to make “access to water simple, sustainable and pollution-free,” according to its website.

“Let’s say it and make it happen,” Lowell said. “Let’s build the culture and ecosystem here. We are the Blue Economy.”

Kay, whose Enspired Solutions company is based in East Lansing, said having the technology to make a Blue Economy businesses thrive “in a location that can link to some more areas” is critical. Kay — who also had a booth at Greilickville Harbor Park for BlueTech Demo Day on Monday afternoon — co-founded a company that breaks down PFAs in water into water, fluoride and simple non-toxic carbon compounds.

Kay said they will begin field product demonstrating in Michigan in the coming months, and just completed a funding round of $1.25 million to scale up the company.

“I wouldn’t mind having more of footprint for the company up here,” said Kay, noting her sister’s family and parents live in Traverse City. “I’m looking for manufacturing opportunities up here.”

Part of the panel discussion focused on challenges to adding innovative ideas and companies around the region’s ample freshwater.

Call prefaced his question to the panel by admitting that “housing and child care are always an issue” in northern Michigan and particularly Traverse City.

In addition to having a maker space, and access to fabricators and other services, education plays a big component.

Kay said having “a work force excited and energized by entrepreneurship” is key.

Van Sumeren said that’s where NMC comes into the innovation in the Great Lakes equation. Van Sumeren replaced Hybrid Robotics President Matt Goddard, who, with fellow company founders, went quickly from NMC students to business entrepreneurs.

Van Sumeren said the traditional “16 credits for eight semesters”-degree model also doesn’t work as well because college students are different now. He said not only are students frequently older than in years past, they also are working full-time.

He said higher education students need to have plenty of non-traditional options as well as “credentials of value” to specific job skills. Van Sumeren said NMC also needs to continue to offer education “at scale and at real time” to keep up with innovation because “no economy exists without a competent workforce.”

NMC Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Jason Slade, who spoke before the panel began as the supporting sponsor, and Van Sumeren said the college has and will continue to make a significant investment in freshwater studies like its bachelor degree in marine technology — the only one in the country — in addition to the Great Lakes Maritime Academy.

NMC has other new ventures like the Great Lakes AquaHacking Challenge “designed to accelerate innovation and new technologies supporting the issues facing the Great Lakes and the freshwater ecosystem,” according to a postcard at NMC’s booth at Monday’s BlueTech Demo Day.

“From a college’s perspective, it’s part of our strategic plan to be a leader of Blue Economy in this region,” said Ed Bailey, director of program and portfolio development, at NMC’s Marine Center on Monday. “All these pieces are a part of that.”

As are Michigan Technological University’s Traverse City Research Space that opened in 2021, and the Freshwater Research and Innovation Center on West Grand Traverse Bay that is at least three years away.

“The start date is totally tied to funding,” Bailey said, a short distance away from where the $40-60 million facility will sit. “It’s a big project.”

So is the Meijer BeBot, a remote-controlled beach cleaning robot The Watershed Center-Grand Traverse Bay received in the fall that it plans to deploy once a week to area locations as part of a “bi-national program aimed at reducing plastics from going into the Great Lakes,” Executive Director Christie Crissman said Monday.

Funding a lot of these ideas is why Bodagala was part of Thursday’s Blue Economy panel discussion. Bodagala said Red Cedar Ventures and Michigan Rise are making “two to three investments” a week, did so during Northern Michigan Startup Week and will continue to look at the region’s Blue Economy investment “through a long-term lens.”

The first Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge launched in northern Michigan’s 10 counties in April. Awarding up to $150,000 in grants for “the decarbonization and electrification of both marinas and watercraft across the state,” applications to the program partnering Traverse Connect and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation will be awarded soon.

The Great Lakes Observing System will also bring its Lakebed 2030 Conference back to Traverse City this fall from Sept. 21-23. The conference aims to map the shape and depth of the lake floor in the Great Lakes by 2030 and brought global innovators to TC.

Bodagala said these types of conferences and events like Northern Michigan Startup Week have the potential to go beyond the “all boats rise” mentality when it comes to the Blue Economy.

“Traverse City has a chance to be a beacon for the world,” he said.

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