TECHNOLOGY
From Michigan Development Guide 2023
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Flying High: How Aerospace Propels Michigan Economy

Talent, educational facilities and capital lift state into tech stratosphere.

Technology
Orbion engineers assemble a complete satellite propulsion system in the company’s manufacturing facility.
Photo courtesy of Orbion Space Technology

by Mary Welch
I

t requires a great combination for technology companies to start and thrive,” says Brad King, co-founder and CEO of Orbion Space Technology, which develops and manufactures plasma propulsion systems for satellites.

According to King, companies need “talent and people who want to live where you are and want to do what you do. Then you need a key to a technology talent pipeline and access to an academic mindset and academic talent. Finally, you need capital.”

Admittedly, that last piece was harder to find. “You need capital as a startup and to grow, but over the last 30 years or so, capital focused mainly in Silicon Valley and around Boston,” he said. “Now Michigan has a great infrastructure of investors. We’ve been able to draw valuable capital, and there is a growing venture capital community here with connections elsewhere.”

Money is coming into (and from) Michigan because the talent, startups, infrastructure and ideas are there. Michigan is the fastest-growing state for venture capital investment with $3.1 billion in 2020, up from $300 million in 2016, according to Crunchbase, which tracks data on companies. 

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Co-founders Drs. Brad King and Jason Sommerville in an Orbion development laboratory next to a satellite propulsion module.

Photo courtesy of Orbion Space Technology

There are 165 venture-backed startup companies in Michigan — an increase of 17% over the last five years, according to the 2021 Annual Research Report from the Michigan Venture Capital Association.

Orbion, located in Houghton in the Upper Peninsula, has received funding from state initiatives as well as more than $30 million in three rounds of venture capital. In 2019, the company raised $9.2 million with Boston’s Material Impact Fund being the lead investor and $20 million from Series B funding in 2021 with San Mateo, California’s Inventus Capital Partners as the lead investor.

This is happening because Michigan has all the pieces necessary to birth technology and aerospace firms and then take them to maturity and beyond. One of those pieces is the large-scale presence of industry leaders. Michigan has 14 Fortune 400 companies that employ more than 80,000 workers statewide.


“You need capital as a startup and to grow, but over the last 30 years or so, capital focused mainly in Silicon Valley and around Boston. Now Michigan has a great infrastructure of investors. We’ve been able to draw valuable capital, and there is a growing venture capital community here with connections elsewhere.”

— Brad King, co-founder and CEO of Orbion Space Technology


Another key piece is higher education. This network of institutions includes the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which had $1.6 billion in annual research volume in 2020, in addition to Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University and Wayne State University, which provide a talent pipeline as well as research facilities. These institutions also partner with the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization Program as well as the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s (MEDC) programs that help accelerate the creation and commercialization of new technologies.

Michigan is one of the few states that has more than one resident unicorn company. Since 2018, five Michigan companies — Duo Security, Llamasoft, Onestream Software, Rivian Automotive and StockX — qualified for that billion-dollar-club status.

Northern Wings was started in 2001 in a barn in Mackinac County, located in Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula, by a disabled Native American veteran and is a certified aerospace manufacturer and stocking distributor that provides materials and parts for commercial and military aircraft. It counts NASA and Boeing Aerospace among its customers. 

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“The company was started here because the owner is from here and he had this dream of developing this economic hub in relation to the aerospace industry,” says Christopher P. Burger, operations manager. “We could have put the company anywhere.”

Being in a rural area (“We’re an hour-and-a-half from Walmart”), the company invests heavily in training and works with the state to help develop the requisite skill sets needed in employees, he says. “People who work for us want to stay in the area; they are committed. So, we’re able to take the local talent and leverage grant programs and training programs provided by the state to upskill our workforce. We’ve worked with the GO Pro Training Fund, which has helped drive forward our quality and productivity efforts and add value to our customers.”

In addition, an MEDC Industry 4.0 grant that supports small manufacturers helped them leverage new technology to automate operations. “It’s helped greatly. Our company has 32 people, and our revenue generation is staggering when you consider the number of people we have,” says Burger. “It’s a combination of ingenuity from trying to figure out how to make it work and taking advantage of the programs the state has to improve our capabilities.”

Michigan has the right combination for King and the folks at Orbion Space Technology to thrive. “We have a great combination of talent and access to great engineering and technology minds in Michigan Tech, which is very engineer-focused. There are all flavors of engineers. We offer internship programs, test drive and hire the best-performing ones,” he says. “The state also has a great manufacturing base. There are thousands of shops who know how to manufacture things.”

With all these advantages, there is still one more: the state itself. “It’s a state where people want to live,” says King. “Michigan crushes it on quality of life.” 




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