Traverse City Ticker October 5, 2021 By Craig Manning
Renewable energy projects, freshwater research, autonomous vehicle testing, a pipeline of tech-centric college-educated talent, and an increase in the number of four-year college degrees available locally: just a few of the outcomes Jay Meldrum hopes will spring from a brand-new Traverse City-based Michigan Tech University (MTU) research center.
MTU held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday afternoon to celebrate the new research hub, with numerous players from the local business and education communities in attendance. MTU will take over the second-floor offices of the Traverse Connect building, which were vacated during the pandemic by previous tenant Rotary Charities. Meldrum, a longtime MTU professor who also serves as director of the university’s Keweenaw Research Center, will lead the local initiative as MTU’s official liaison to the Grand Traverse area.
Meldrum tells The Ticker that an on-the-ground presence in Traverse City is an idea that has been gestating at MTU for years. The university has taken a well-documented interest in northwest lower Michigan, forming partnerships 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 entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Grand Traverse area, formalizing the college’s connection with the local community. That occurrence also officially formed the Grand Traverse Area Michigan Tech Steering Community, intended to help “develop research and technology commercialization partnerships, tailored talent development programs, and student-teacher placements.”
Eventually, all that focus on Traverse City led to a simple conclusion: MTU needed a physical presence here.
“We needed somebody here to keep this going,” Meldrum says of MTU’s growing list of Traverse City partnerships. “We had people that were in Houghton with the responsibility, but they weren’t here enough. I wouldn’t say it was not successful, I’ll just say it’s going to be more successful with boots on the ground.”
Six months ago, when MTU made the decision to establish a hub in Traverse City, Meldrum says he “raised his hand” to lead it. An invitation from Traverse Connect President and CEO Warren Call for MTU to set up shop in the Traverse Connect building answered the question of where that hub would operate.
Now, the bigger question: What will an MTU research center bring to Traverse City?
According to Meldrum, the sky is the limit.
Up until now, MTU has had four institutes of this ilk. The first is the Keweenaw Research Center (KRC) in Calumet, which Meldrum has led for years.
“It’s 900 acres worth of rough, snowy, icy roads,” Meldrum explains of the KRC. “We do work for the military in mobility studies, making sure that military vehicles can go over rough terrain.” Automotive companies also use the property, to test everything from vehicle handling to the performance of snow tires. And snowblower companies do testing there, too.
MTU also operates the Michigan Tech Research Institute, based in Ann Arbor; and the Great Lakes Research Center and the Advanced Power Systems Research Center, both located in Houghton-Hancock. The Ann Arbor institute works on technology development and research in national security, machine learning, robotics, and informatics. The Great Lakes Research Center does freshwater studies on Lake Superior, with research in lake ecology and fish populations, food chain trends, and autonomous underwater vehicles. The Advanced Power Systems Research Center, meanwhile, is aimed at researching and developing innovations in the automotive and transportation realm, including “low-emission, high-efficiency vehicles” and self-driving car technologies.
To start, Meldrum says the Traverse City research hub will have more modest aims mostly revolving around the existing partnerships MTU has with local educators and businesses. One focus is growing the NMC/MTU “2+2 program,” which offers a pipeline for students to start their engineering studies at NMC, transfer their credits to MTU after two years, and finish their bachelor’s degrees in Houghton. Another focus is encouraging local tech-focused high schoolers – including pupils of the Manufacturing Technology Academy (MTA) at the Career-Tech Center and the SCI-MA-TECH program at TCAPS – to take advantage of available MTU scholarship money. This year, Meldrum says 10 students from the MTA matriculated to MTU; he hopes to grow that number in the coming years.
Those initial points of focus are the runway for MTU’s new Traverse City hub, but they aren’t necessarily the destination. While Meldrum jokes that MTU is “making it up as we go” as to what the research center might become, he sees a slew of different possibilities for the future.
Those possibilities include:
- Working with organizations like Cherryland Electric to bring more community solar projects to the region
- Engaging the Traverse City business scene in “tech transfer partnerships,” where local businesses sponsor projects at MTU and students then work on research aimed at developing technologies that can be leveraged to help solve pain points of TC companies
- Linking MTU’s burgeoning biomedical program with Munson Healthcare, for internship possibilities and more
- Establishing greater connections between MTU’s Great Lakes Research Center and NMC’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute
- Connecting Traverse City and the Advanced Power Systems Research Center, particularly for the purposes of developing and improving autonomous vehicle technology. “[Traverse City] may become a better proving ground for that kind of technology, because the traffic patterns here are way different than they are in Houghton,” Meldrum notes.
- Creating “a pipeline of educated graduates to come back to the Grand Traverse area to live here and work here” – bringing tech skills, ideas, innovations, and even startups with them
“I hope that in the future – let’s call that five years from now – I hope that the facility grows out of this small space,” Meldrum says. “I hope there’s instruction so that students can stay here and finish their four-year degrees. Even though it’s an MTU degree, it’s co-taught by MTU and NMC. They’ve got their strengths and we have ours, but we’re better together. And I hope we can bring some ideas here. Because MTU is in a very small community; it’s probably 10 times smaller than this. If somebody comes up with a good idea that could be a nationwide innovation – an idea that they could sell – Houghton is probably not the right place to be centered to do that, whereas Traverse City might be perfect. Because there’s room for growth here. There’s transportation that’s much better here. It’s a hub, so to speak, for getting to someplace else within the state or the nation.”