Innovation in Small Town America

Often people think of innovation in terms of the big inventions that pioneered new industries, like Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Thomas Edison’s light bulb and the Wright brothers’ airplane.

As a patent attorney, I have seen innovation on many levels, from high-tech inventions at Microsoft to new methods of laying bricks from mom-and-pop masonry companies. Among others, I’ve represented the inventor of MP3 (which was a huge leap forward in audio compression at the time) and Stanford University for inventions in space transportation vehicles.

I’ve also represented a hunter for a remote game surveillance system he devised at his hunting camp, a college student for a new computer programming language, a doctor for a disposable scalpel, an electrician for new ways of making electrical wires, and a professor for novel wearable electrical pulse stimulation patches for applications in healthcare.

It has been a privilege to be on the sidelines witnessing amazing advances in the sciences and experiencing the enthusiasm and positivity that most inventors project.

While we often think of inventions as the next flashy new thing, latest iPhone or “it” toy of the holiday season, innovation is sometimes borne out of need. A COVID-19 vaccine is a groundbreaking discovery borne out of need. So too has been the adaptation of Traverse City’s small business community to the pandemic.

Most downtown TC business owners may not consider themselves innovators … but think of what we have done to adapt to the COVID-19 health and safety restrictions. We have created new shopping experiences, figured out how to make curbside pick-up work, opened up online sales for the first time, and devised new ways of conducting safe, yet profitable business. These adaptions truly display innovation.

And yes, some in our community have grumbled about the changes to businesses required by government regulations. For a while it seemed that just when you were set to comply with a new regulation, the pandemic evolved and everything changed, requiring new processes, new floor plan set-ups and different employee trainings.

But rather than seeing new requirements as a negative, those who have embraced change are displaying the same type of “can-do” attitudes of successful inventors who were able to capitalize on their discoveries. Those who have accepted the current new normal and moved forward instead of complaining have had the opportunity to rethink operations, become more cost-effective, redefine employment positions for lower overhead, listen to employee ideas for improved business processes, and create better customer experiences.

While some see irritants when walking down Front Street, I see inspiration. I am proud that we closed Front Street to promote socially distanced dining and shopping to help our downtown businesses survive and keep our citizens and visitors safe. I am proud to see parking spaces devoted to curbside pick-up, doctors’ offices with “wait in your car instead of in the waiting room“ protocols to keep patients and staff safe, businesses rethinking jobs to figure out what work can be performed remotely (even if it typically was not), and other innovations created out of necessity.

The pandemic has forced northern Michigan to adopt new technologies that enable employees to work from home, change meetings to remote video conferences, and become more data-driven to automate workflow or decrease operational expenses.

Speaking as someone who managed teams of remote workers in Silicon Valley where it was the norm in 2000, it is about time that TC caught up with the remote work scene found across the country. Our residential real estate economy is booming as a result of the national remote work trend. Allowing remote work opens up the talent pool from which you may find exceptional employees while decreasing overhead.

Hopefully better ways of conducting our businesses, such as allowing some remote workers, will live long past the pandemic.

Our northern Michigan business community has innovated out of necessity, reinventing our ways of doing business. To me, our downtown innovators are heroic.

While we might not be inventing a cure for cancer every day or a Star Trek transport system to “beam me up, Scotty,” we are keeping our small-town economy and citizens alive.

Bravo Traverse City.

Katie Horvath is the CEO of Naveego.