Hopes High As Michigan Tech Unveils New Traverse City Hub
Renewable energy projects, freshwater research, autonomous vehicle testing, a pipeline of technology-oriented college graduates, and an increase in the number of four-year degrees available locally: just some of the results Jay Meldrum hopes will come from a brand new research center at Michigan Tech University (MTU) in Traverse City.
To celebrate the new research location, MTU cut the ribbon on Monday afternoon with numerous players from local business and education. MTU is taking over the offices on the second floor of the Traverse Connect building, which Rotary Charities as the previous tenant vacated during the pandemic. Meldrum, a long-time MTU professor and director of the university’s Keweenaw research center, will head the local initiative as MTU’s official liaison officer for the Grand Traverse area.
Meldrum tells The Ticker that an on-site presence in Traverse City is an idea that MTU has been developing for years. The university has developed a well-documented interest in northwest Michigan, partnering with Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), Northwest Education Services (formerly Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District), Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), and 20Fathoms . In 2019, MTU signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Grand Traverse area, which formalizes the connection between the college and the local community. This event also officially formed the Grand Traverse Area Michigan Tech Steering Community, designed to help “develop research and technology commercialization partnerships, bespoke talent development programs, and internship programs for educators.”
The focus on Traverse City ultimately led to a simple conclusion: MTU needed a physical presence here.
“We needed someone here to keep it going,” says Meldrum of the growing list of MTU partnerships in Traverse City. “We had people in Houghton in charge, but they weren’t here enough. I wouldn’t say it wasn’t successful, I’m just saying that it will be more successful with boots on the ground. “
When MTU made the decision to set up a hub in Traverse City six months ago, Meldrum said he “raised his hand” to run it. An invitation from Traverse Connect President and CEO Warren Call to MTU to settle in the Traverse Connect building answered the question about the location of this hub.
Now the big question: what does an MTU research center bring to Traverse City?
According to Meldrum, the sky is the limit.
To date, MTU has had four institutes of this type. The first is the Keweenaw Research Center (KRC) in Calumet, which Meldrum has headed for years.
“That’s 900 hectares of rough, snow-covered and icy roads,” explains Meldrum about the KRC. “We work for the military in mobility studies and ensure that military vehicles can drive over rough terrain.” Automotive companies also use the property to test everything from vehicle handling to the performance of winter tires. Snow throwing companies are also testing there.
MTU also operates the Michigan Tech Research Institute, based in Ann Arbor; and the Great Lakes Research Center and Advanced Power Systems Research Center, both in Houghton-Hancock. The Ann Arbor Institute works on technology development and research in the areas of national security, machine learning, robotics, and computer science. The Great Lakes Research Center conducts freshwater studies on Lake Superior, with research on lake ecology and fish populations, trends in the food chain, and autonomous underwater vehicles. The Advanced Power Systems Research Center, on the other hand, aims to research and develop innovations in the automotive and transportation sectors, including “low-emission, highly efficient vehicles” and self-driving vehicle technologies.
According to Meldrum, the Traverse City research center will initially pursue more modest goals, mainly focusing on MTU’s existing partnerships with local educational institutions and companies. One focus is the expansion of the NMC / MTU “2 + 2 program”, which offers students a pipeline to begin their engineering studies at NMC, transfer their academic achievements to MTU after two years and complete their bachelor’s degree in Houghton. Another focus is promoting local, technology-oriented high school students – including students from the Manufacturing Technology Academy (MTA) in the Career Tech Center and the SCI-MA-TECH program at TCAPS – to use the available MTU scholarship money. According to Meldrum, 10 MTA students enrolled at MTU this year; he hopes to increase that number in the years to come.
These initial focuses are the runway of the new MTU hub Traverse City, but not necessarily the destination. While Meldrum jokes that MTU “thinks up” how the research center could be, he sees various possibilities for the future.
These possibilities include:
· Working with organizations like Cherryland Electric to bring more community solar projects to the region
· Involvement of the Traverse City business scene in “tech transfer partnerships” in which local companies sponsor projects at MTU and students then work on research aimed at developing technologies that help resolve weak points in TC companies can
· Linking MTU’s up-and-coming biomedical program with Munson Healthcare, for internship opportunities and more
· Expansion of the connections between the Great Lakes Research Center of MTU and the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute of the NMC
· Linking Traverse City and the Advanced Power Systems Research Center, particularly to develop and improve autonomous vehicle technology. “[Traverse City] could be a better testing ground for this type of technology because the traffic patterns here are very different from Houghton, ”notes Meldrum.
· Create a “pipeline of educated graduates returning to the Grand Traverse region to live and work” – bringing technical skills, ideas, innovations and even start-ups with them
“I hope that in the future – let’s call it five years from now – the facility will grow out of this small space,” says Meldrum. “I hope there are classes so the students can stay here and complete their four year studies. Although it is an MTU degree, it is taught jointly by MTU and NMC. They have their strengths and we have ours, but together we are better. And I hope we can bring some ideas here. Because MTU is part of a very small community; it’s probably 10 times smaller than this one. If someone has a good idea that could be a nationwide innovation – an idea they could sell – Houghton is probably not the place to go to do it, while Traverse City could be perfect. Because there is room for growth here. Transport is much better here. It is, so to speak, a hub to get to another place within the state or the nation. “