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Tech Tour Day Four: Great New Tech In GR

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The downtown Grand Rapids skyline. WWJ file photo.

The downtown Grand Rapids skyline. WWJ file photo.

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Matt Roush

Grand Rapids is Michigan’s second largest city with a technology sector that’s huge and thriving, so it’s always easy to find something new when the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report rolls into town.

That’s what happened Tuesday – three new tech entrepreneurial companies, and one mammoth institution that I’d visited before, but not before it doubled in size.

(Check out my photos from the road:  http://detroit.cbslocal.com/photo-galleries/2011/05/13/glitr-spring-tech-tour-2011/)

My day began in a beautifully restored furniture warehouse and factory at 560 Fifth St. NW just northwest of downtown Grand Rapids. The five-story blond brick structure, which dates back to the 1870s, is now home to a bunch of cool little companies – among them Red Pigeon.

Started last year by three young men with ties to Grand Rapids, Red Pigeon does custom design work for mobile Web sites. Karl R. Koelling, who has a business degree from Hope College and later graduated from film school at Compass College of Cinematic Arts in Grand Rapids, handles creative and cinematics. Will Hartwell, who has a bachelor of science in computer science from Valparaiso University and a law degree from Cooley Law School and still plans to work as an intellectual property attorney, handles technology and legal matters. And Douglas Lang, by day a pilot for a regional airline with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., handles marketing and sales.

Lang and Koelling met through a mutual friend a little over two years ago while talking about working on some social media marketing projects.  Lang met Hartwell a little over a year ago while working on grtp.org, the effort to get Grand Rapids Google’s Fiber for Communities. “Will was the first person who emailed me and actually showed up to help,” Lang said.

Hartwell and Lang worked on a project that had to have a film and video component to it and we engaged Koelling help.  From there, the three men said they realized that there was a competitive advantage to having QR, mobile Web and film and video services all “in house.”

Red Pigeon has already done groundbreaking work for a bunch of familiar clients, from religious publishers Zondervan, Michigan State University and the TEDx Grand Rapids conference.

We’ve carved out a niche by working to become a firm for firms,” Lang said. “We strive to be a tool in the tool box of other firms that don’t have QR code technology, mobile Web or film and video services as in-house specialties.  We’re not a Web design firm looking to add this QR thing or mobile Web pages — we are a mobile Web services firm from inception.”

And the name? Lang said “red” says look at me, while “pigeon” refers to man’s original wireless messenger.

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From Red Pigeon it was off across town to the southeast side and Dorner Works, provider of embedded electronics systems.

David Dorner, who founded the company in 2000 after working for Smiths Aerospace (now GE Aviation) in Grand Rapids, pointed out that embedded systems are after all everywhere – the simplest example being a child’s blinking LED sneakers. Those shoes contain all the basic parts of an embedded system – the input, which detects jumping, the output, a flashing light, and a power source.

DornerWorks got its first employee in 2002 and its first building outside Dorner’s home in 2005. In 2006, it mushroomed to 26 employees, and in 2008, it moved into its current home, a former engineering building with a gorgeous view of Lake Eastbrook. In 2010, Dorner was named to the Michigan 50 Companies to Watch list, hit 50 employees, got ISO 9001 (quality), AS9100 (aerospace) and ISO 13485 (medical) certified, and established a southeast Michigan office in Novi.

The company’s embedded electronics have appeared everywhere from wireless power systems to wireless fences to railroad trains to telecom equipment.

Dorner said the company is now actively hiring, and is looking for hardware and software engineers with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. Dorner is also searching for employees with LED lighting experience.

“What we’re seeing is the resurgence of the auto industry, which is great,” Dorner said. “The complexity of electronics in automobiles just keeps growing, and in health care as well.”

I also got a peek at some very cool Dorner embedded technologies, including a touch-sensitive screen intended for a car audio system and a crash recording box for cars.

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Then it was back across town to southwest suburban Grandville (still under all-electric power I might add from the LaFontaine Automotive Group Chevrolet Volt) and the headquarters of Trivalent Group.

Created in 2003 out of the merger of Remex Corp., established in 1971, and Trivalent LAN Concepts, founded in 1991, Trivalent is a soup-to-nuts IT provider of systems, communications services, and professional services, including a suite of managed services called “foundations.” It’s also an increasing statewide presence, making several acquisitions, including a Battle Creek company this year.

The company is privately held, and in an interesting twist to its corporate bylaws, all its shareholders must be active in the business.

The company has its main data center at its headquarters, with backups in Portage, South Bend, Ind. and downtown Grand Rapids. Its data centers enjoy multiply redundant Net connections from AT&T, US Signal , TDS and Level 3.

The center also has a diesel backup power system that company officials said saw them through a 52-hour power outage after a massive thunderstorm a couple of years ago.

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My final stop of the day was at the massive Van Andel Research Institute downtown, on the famed Medical Mile up the hill on East Michigan Street, where well over a billion dollars has been invested in recent years in a slew of new health care centers.

Among them is a new children’s hospital, a new women’s health center, a new home for the Michigan State University medical school, a new cancer center, new medical office buildings and more.

Including a 240,000-square-foot addition to the Van Andel Institute that opened in 2009, bringing its total footprint to 440,000 square feet.

The LEED-platinum-certified building is now home to 23 research labs. Originally focused exclusively on cancer and Parkinson’s disease, Van Andel development director Gerilyn May told me that researchers are letting their discoveries lead them into possible new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis and ALS.

So, a five-hour visit for four solid experiences that help explain why West Michigan is participating fully in this economic recovery, especially when the economics in question are technology-based.

And now it’s on to Kalamazoo, my ancestral homeland, where a bunch of life science magic awaits – and a bunch of other stuff, too.

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As for the LaFontaine Chevrolet Volt — I found a bunch of parking spots at the Crowne Plaza hotel on 28th Street in Grand Rapids with power outlets in front of them, with weathered old signs reading “Diesel Cars.” Must date back to that awful 1970s and 1980s flirtation with primitive diesel engines. This hotel was built back then from the looks of it. Well, whatever, they adapt perfectly to EVs now.

But shame on the Holiday Inn West Kalamazoo. Not ONE parking spot with a power outlet for an EV. People are buying these things, you know!!

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