From vintage stores to restaurants, book and game shops to boutiques, Ypsilanti’s downtown is bustling with a unique collection of small businesses. Behind those retail businesses are larger business owners and entrepreneurs helping propel other businesses forward. Entrepreneurial incubator Ann Arbor SPARK began its Innovate Ypsi grant program in 2016 as a way to encourage more of those prospective business owners to plant roots in the Ypsi community.
According to SPARK’s website, the Innovate Ypsi grant program is “designed to provide funding to businesses that create jobs and investment in the 48197/48198 zip codes.” Submitted projects are reviewed by a committee, which gives priority to projects and businesses that committee members feel will have a strong economic impact through job creation.
To date, SPARK has awarded grants totaling over $650,000 to 14 different Ypsi businesses for marketing, hiring, and payroll, as well as purchasing and renovating property. One grant recipient, GM&T Engineering, utilized its grant dollars to redevelop the property at 1250 E. Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti Township, adding offices and equipment to increase GM&T’s engineering and testing capabilities.
Carlos Gutierrez Martinez, president and chief engineer at GM&T, says receiving the grant has allowed him to take on more ambitious projects. He now has partners in national organizations such as NASA, and does work with partners overseas in Europe. GM&T, which is certified by both NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will also oversee fabrication of aerospace technology at a major Michigan university.
“SPARK and the township are conscious of the economics, but also the people,” Martinez says. “We originally were looking at other locations, but the difference with Ypsi was like day and night.”
Martinez worked closely with Jennifer Olmstead, SPARK’s director of business development, who he says was integral to GM&T quickly and easily completing the purchase and renovation of its Michigan Ave. property. Olmstead sees the Innovate Ypsi program as “an incentive for companies to come to Ypsi,” with a focus on research and development (R&D) due to the city’s close proximity to several universities.
“SPARK and the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development have created many robust incentive options for businesses in Eastern Washtenaw County,” Olmstead says. “One of those options is Innovate Ypsi, which has allowed awarded companies to make more than $25 million in capital investment since the program began.”
The focus on R&D also attracted LuxWall, a company that is working to develop new glass technology to reduce heating and cooling costs, as well as significantly reduce carbon emissions. With the company’s $50,000 grant, LuxWall CEO Scott Thomsen was able to sign a five-year lease in Ypsilanti, creating 45 new jobs for Ypsi residents in 2022.
“Since receiving the grant, we’ve expanded our R&D facility, added equipment, added talent to our team of innovators, and are continuing to make significant strides in our product development,” Thomsen says. “We’re thrilled that our green, tech-forward, global solution for buildings will have roots in Ypsilanti.”
Olmstead also highlights the work being done by SPARK East, SPARK’s Ypsilanti headquarters, which she calls the “front door for companies looking to expand into Eastern Washtenaw County.” Although Kristine Nash-Wong, SPARK East’s director of entrepreneurial services, agrees, she sees SPARK East as one of many front doors for business owners.
“I think that our goal is to make it so no one ever goes in a ‘wrong’ door,” Nash-Wong says. “Even if we don’t have the right resources, we can make sure we are connecting folks to the people who have the right ones.”
SPARK East focuses on tech startups – businesses that may or may not always have a physical office space. Nash-Wong highlights recent Innovate Ypsi grant recipient MI-HQ Ypsilanti, a tech-focused co-working space housed in what used to be Eastern Michigan University’s College of Business building on West Michigan Avenue.
Kristine Nash-Wong, SPARK East’s director of entrepreneurial services.
“MI-HQ will be a good anchor for biotech and health care innovation,” Nash-Wong says. “We’re dedicated to helping innovative startups, and there has definitely been steady growth over time of those in Ypsi.”
Nash-Wong feels that SPARK’s style of partnering with companies for the long run is very unique, compared to other business incubators that may only provide funding before sending entrepreneurs on their way.
“One of the nice things about the way SPARK works on the entrepreneurship side [is] we work with them over time,” Nash-Wong says. “It’s not an episodic intervention. They get coaching and we’re able to tap into the business accelerator grants, and we’ve expanded into accessing small business grants as well.”
SPARK East has also invigorated the entrepreneurial landscape in Ypsi through events such as the Founders Fireside series, a free event for up-and-coming entrepreneurs and business owners to ask longtime entrepreneurs questions and connect to more resources. SPARK East also offers numerous internship opportunities.
Jennifer Olmstead, SPARK’s director of business development for Washtenaw County.
“We’re kind of in it for the long haul,” Nash-Wong says. “My ideal for growth is to help companies grow to the point where they stop working with me and start working with Jennifer on the brick-and-mortar, larger revenue side. We’re able to help make a significant impact with these businesses.”
Martinez hopes that the Innovate Ypsi program will help to put his business, other businesses, and Ypsilanti as a whole on the map. He also appreciates the way that Olmstead and others throughout the county have been approaching the process of uplifting small business owners and entrepreneurs, emphasizing SPARK and the OCED’s people-first approach.
“They’re very warm people,” Martinez says. “I feel very comfortable. The difference between when we got the building and now is huge.”
The Innovate Ypsi incentive grant program is an ongoing program that business owners and entrepreneurs can inquire about at any time. To learn more about Innovate Ypsi, or to see if a business qualifies for a grant, contact Jennifer Olmstead at firstname.lastname@example.org.