Student 'Sherpas' Help Early-Stage U.P. Companies

NMU and MTU logos

Northern Michigan University and Michigan Technological University are collaborating on an Entrepreneurial Fellows Program, which gives students practical experience in identifying customers, strategic partners and suppliers critical to the success of early-stage Upper Peninsula companies.

Since it launched last fall with support from InvestUP, the program has already helped four participating companies determine there is a feasible market for their inventions and identify lead customers. By gaining commercial traction, they can more effectively work with business incubators and economic development organizations to secure the necessary funding to move forward.

NMU and MTU are leveraging their faculty and staff experience in technology commercialization with student time and talent. Corinne Bodeman, management instructor in NMU's College of Business, said it is mutually beneficial to have the entrepreneurial and engineering camps co-communicating so they can "speak each other's language” effectively. 

“Our students have an opportunity to work with actual clients and apply what they're learning in class," she added. "They are trained in commercialization and introduced to the technology the companies are working with. They are provided enough information to independently lead a meaningful dialogue with other companies that represent candidate users and customers for the technology. So they are put in situations where they have to talk to people and ask the right questions to effectively research the industry and find potential avenues for success.”

“This collaborative approach provides significant support for the companies and valuable learning opportunities for the students,” said Jim Baker, associate vice president for research administration at MTU. “There are five student fellows from each school working under the program. They are informally referred to as ‘Sherpas,' which reflects the support of climbing the mountain of success by helping to carry gear on the path to critical milestones related to customer engagement, partner recruitment and investability.”

One of the program's Sherpas, NMU senior Josh Lewandowski, recently worked with a Michigan Tech startup to find an excellent lead customer candidate to help move the business forward toward pilot scale and industrial scale implementation.

Resurgence, based in Houghton, was founded by Michigan Tech Professor David Shonnard to commercialize plastics recycling technologies developed from his research. As a result of Lewandowski's support, Resurgence is currently working with a multi-national corporation with significant operations in Michigan. This company is a potential customer for Resurgence as a supplier of materials that they currently buy from other sources, and as a recycler of the company's waste materials. 

“I enjoyed the Sherpa program; it pushed me to think outside the box and reach out to network with others,” said Lewandowski, a PR and sustainability major. “Thanks to the program, I leave with confidence in what I want to pursue after college and the steps to get there.”

Below are other examples of how the Sherpas' involvement has been helpful to U.P. companies:

-NMU students Liv Jarzabek and Kylie Gustafson worked with an alternative salt startup to identify potential customers to utilize the product. A few potato chip companies were interested, and one has committed to doing a test product to ascertain the viability of using the alternative salt. 

-Two Michigan Tech students, Emmanuel Teigong and Brenda Chepngeno, assessed lead customer opportunities for portable emission analyzer systems that are a low-cost and lightweight alternative for assessing environmental impact and emissions from offroad vehicles, snowmobiles, personal watercraft and other motorized forms of transport. This validated the customer need for a portable, lightweight emissions analysis device, explored the ecosystem of competition, identified key partners to test prototypes, and provided feedback critical for future development. 

“The Sherpa program is a one-of-a-kind experience that provides you with the opportunity to be in a think tank that will develop your skills—from teamwork, creativity and analytical—to make a lasting difference in society,” added MTU student Michael Ngala.

Learn more about NMU's entrepreneurship program here

Media contacts: Corinne Bodeman, NMU,; Jim Baker, MTU,

Prepared By

Kristi Evans
News Director

Categories: Around NMU, Strategic Plan