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#OTGYpsi: The SPARK East grant program brings business development to Ypsilanti


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Rylee Barnsdale's Feature Article: Innovate Ypsi grant program helps drive investment and job creation in Ypsi area

Ann Arbor SPARK


SPARK Contact Info

GM&T Engineering



Cathy Shafran: You are listening to 89.1 WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran. This is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community. And we bring you On the Ground Ypsi in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. Today, our focus is on a program in Washtenaw County that is investing in business startups in Ypsilanti with investments that are paying off. Today I'm joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, whose online news site is reporting this week on a program called Innovate Ypsi. It's a grant program that encourages people with a business plan to create those businesses in Ypsilanti. Rylee, thanks so much for joining us.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Cathy.

Cathy Shafran: Can you tell me more about this Innovate Ypsi program in the article that you wrote?

Rylee Barnsdale: Yeah. So, Innovate Ypsi is a grant incentive program that was founded by Ann Arbor SPARK and SPARK East in 2016. The focus of the program is funding businesses that create jobs and investment opportunities in the 48197 and 98 area codes here in Ypsi. And a big focus of the program is targeting research and development companies because of how close we are to places like University of Michigan and Eastern, for example. So, we've got places that are working on innovations in health care, like MI-HQ, which just moved in to the Gary Owens building here in Ypsi, as well as LuxWall, who are developing eco-friendly construction methods and materials. It's all to bring more jobs and opportunity to the Ypsi area, and that is what the grant program is aspiring to do and is currently doing.

Cathy Shafran: So, grant dollars available for these types of businesses to get themselves going.

Rylee Barnsdale: That's right. So, they have actually awarded over $600,000 in grant dollars to 14 different businesses that have made their homes in the Ypsi area. And that funding goes towards things like talent acquisition, payroll. It can go towards building renovation, as well as marketing. So, just about everything that you need to start up your business and get off on a good foot.

Cathy Shafran: So, the program, you say, has been around since 2016. Can you tell me what the numbers look like since then?

Rylee Barnsdale: That's right. The program started in 2016, which was when the first grants were awarded. And since then, SPARK has awarded 14 different companies over $600,000 in grant dollars. And that has created in turn, more than $25 million in capital investment throughout the city and throughout those two area codes.

Cathy Shafran: So, the investment then is in Ypsilanti's future. Is that the whole concept behind Innovate Ypsi? If if we offer the startup monies to help folks out, then it is servicing the whole community in the long run.

Rylee Barnsdale: Absolutely. And it's one aspect of it is bringing businesses into Ypsi. That's a big draw to the grant program. If you want to be considered for the grant, you have to consider putting your business in Ypsi, which in turn creates jobs, creates more revenue for the city and for the township and, overall, is really where we can already see the difference that it's making in the community.

Cathy Shafran: So, in your report in Concentrate Media, you did talk extensively with Kristine Nash-Wong. She is the director of Entrepreneurial Services at what's being called SPARK East. It's a division of Ann Arbor SPARK, and it services the east side of Washtenaw County. Kristine's joining us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

Kristine Nash-Wong: Hi, thanks for having me.

Cathy Shafran: So, you sit in an office in Ypsilanti--downtown?

Kristine Nash-Wong: I do, Yep.

Cathy Shafran: And people come to your door. And what it is that you can do for them when they enter your door?

Kristine Nash-Wong: Well, we offer a variety of services at SPARK East. We're primarily an incubator, which is where we help technology, health care, biotech, mobility companies as they're starting up and help them sort of support their growth process. And we provide them with conference space and coaching and access to grants and connection to resources. But we also get small businesses that come in our front door since we do have a storefront. And a big part of what we do is try to make sure that we are connecting folks with warm handoffs to the other partners that we have in the community. So, we're really lucky that Ypsilanti has a huge sort of network to support business growth. And so, we might refer through a restaurant to work with Growing Hope or SPDC or any of our partners over at EMU or WCC, for example. And then, of course, obviously, we have coffee and soda.

Cathy Shafran: I'll be there. So, folks come in. Why would they come to your door? What type of businesspeople or aspiring businesspeople might be showing up?

Kristine Nash-Wong: We work with a wide variety of businesses. So, for our incubator, we have what we call sort of driving industries. The funding associated with that is really focused on some of those industries we listed earlier, which is like mobility and health care. But we also have been expanding our work to work on grants with small businesses. So, we get folks who are anywhere from just "I have an idea, and I'd like to get started" to "I have fully, you know, executed business that has revenue and customers, and I'd like to find a location." And that's where I work closer with our business development team and Jennifer Olmsted, who you mentioned in the article, to sort of make sure that we're offering additional services, and that's where the sort of the other side of SPARK comes in and they can help with site location and research and connecting to bigger grants and opportunities to help those bigger companies get settled.

Cathy Shafran: How does this organization work to determine who is viable enough to receive a grant? Is there a vetting process?

Kristine Nash-Wong: Sure. So, we actually work on a number of different grants, most recently on a number of grants for COVID-impacted businesses. Each grant has their own unique requirements. We have, as you can imagine, sort of a very detailed process that we adhere to to make sure that the administration of that is clear, transparent, fair for Innovate Ypsi. There's sort of a committee review process for our COVID-impacted grants where we're working with Washtenaw County on administrating those. Those are federal grants that have very clear requirements. So, each one is a little different, I guess is not a great answer, but we're able to share sort of those details for those applicants.

Cathy Shafran: So, an entrepreneur who would like to be one would come to you say, "This is my area of expertise. This is my plan and my hopes for the future." And it's your division that helps match what grants are available with what they present. Is that it?

Kristine Nash-Wong: Yeah, that's the job. It's not an easy one because there's I feel like, you know, there's so many different kinds of resources. Some of them are grants, but then some of them that are equally important: our mentorship, coaching, finding an entrepreneur that has been there, done that in your industry and can lend their expertise. So, yeah. We try to act as sort of that front door and then guide people to the right resources.

Cathy Shafran: What are some of the biggest successes that you've seen in since 2016?

Kristine Nash-Wong: I do think there is sort of a new mindset when it comes to this concept of startup versus day job versus side gig that we didn't necessarily have before. And a lot of the entrepreneurs that we work with in Ypsi have full-time day jobs while they're starting their business. And that's sort of, to me, the magic of an incubator is because it provides them additional support for as long as sort of they need it until they hit that revenue mark.

Cathy Shafran: Our On the Ground Ypsi conversation with Kristine Nash-Wong, who is director of entrepreneurial services at SPARK East and Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale continues on 89.1 WEMU. Rylee, I know that in your article you also touched upon a couple of companies who've direct recipients of grants through this program who are now developing into businesses in the Ypsilanti area. Can you tell me a little bit about those?

Rylee Barnsdale: Yes. So, one that we mentioned very briefly was LuxWall, and they are working on a patented new form of glass for windows and office buildings, thus, you know, bringing down those costs and bringing more buildings to a neutral carbon footprint. Another one of the businesses is GM&T Engineering, who are actually NASA-certified creating parts and other technology for aerospace, aeronautics, as well as for vehicles that we see on the road every day coming to and from work. They are just a couple of those examples of businesses that are creating these innovations, both for, you know, the world at large and including Ypsi specifically. GM&T's building is on Michigan Ave. They completely use their grant dollars to not only, you know, get more equipment for their facility but also to completely renovate this building that was not in use at all. So, they're not only providing those jobs but also beautifying our community.

Cathy Shafran: So, when you had an opportunity to talk to some of the presidents or the CEOs or owners of these places, did they talk to you at all about the impact of Innovate Ypsi on their ability to move forward?

Rylee Barnsdale: Yes, I spoke with Carlos Gutierrez Martinez, who is the president at GM&T engineering, and he definitely mentioned feeling like there's a lot more that GM&T can do now. But now that they have a home base here in Ypsi, he is able to do a lot more able to hire more employees and do more work in the Washtenaw community.

Cathy Shafran: Kristine, to wrap things up, I'm assuming that your hopes for the future are more stories like this.

Kristine Nash-Wong: I would love more stories like that. My personal goal: I'd love to see as many of our EMU graduates and WCC graduates and even the U of M graduates find jobs and stay here in Ypsi, so that it can continue to thrive.

Cathy Shafran: Kristine Nash-Wong, director of entrepreneurial services at SPARK East and Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, I want to thank both of you so much for joining us here today for an exciting topic about growth in the city and the community around Ypsilanti. Thank you for joining us on On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Cathy Shafran, and this is 89.1 WEMU-FM, Ypsilanti. It's public radio from Eastern Michigan University. And online at WEMU.org.

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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