Traverse City man comes back to his alma mater
FORTY YEAR OLD Joe Thiel has a history with Marquette–he was an NMU football player and an industrial technology major almost two decades ago–and now he has a future here.
He’s the new CEO of the Innovate Marquette Smartzone and the executive director of Invent@NMU. He replaces Ray Johnson who’s retiring after helping start up Marquette’s Smartzone five years ago.
“I’ve always wanted to come back here and work with students,” Thiel says with unmistakable enthusiasm. He’s a large man–a former fullback–who seems to also have a large personality.
He was raised in Traverse City, educated at NMU, then took on a couple of jobs downstate as an industrial engineer and maintenance supervisor before hooking up with Centra Corporation, a large machine tools company. That’s where he got his first taste of entrepreneurial success…and failure.
Within Centra, he and a group of others created another company, Hybra, that developed what looked like a revolutionary product–a wireless headphone that allowed the user to listen to a recording without actually inserting anything into the ear. It wrapped around the back of the ear.
The product won awards, it raised over a half million dollars on Kickstarter. It was the next great thing.
Until it wasn’t. They couldn’t mass produce it. Like so many high tech startups, it ultimately failed, and some of the original investors and the media beat him up over it.
“It was a real humbling experience for me,” Thiel says. “It was an exciting time but it was fractured, and I can say it also molded me into the person that’s sitting here (at the Smarzone office) today.”
Chastened by the experience, he took a step back and took on a job with the Traverse City school district where he ran an international exchange student program. It was successful and satisfying, but he still retained that entrepreneurial urge.
So he came up with something called LockOut, a high tech security system that would connect students, faculty, administrators, and police if an active shooter were ever to enter a school. It’s a system, he says, that’s now used in more than 100 school districts in Michigan and Ohio.
Thiel’s an NMU grad who’s come back after being away for almost two decades.
But then came the opportunity in Marquette, and he seized it. It’s what he wants to do, where he wants to do it, in a community that’s still in its infancy as a tech hub.
“We have a huge opportunity here,” he says. “Our role is to give people who are developing (high and low tech) stuff the opportunity to live and work here and experience this area.”
That means developing entrepreneurs in the school system, at NMU, and throughout the community. It also means helping existing businesses advance their technological prowess and hire more tech people. It means creating a professional and social environment around Marquette that welcomes disparate tech workers who operate remotely–and there are many more of those than you might expect.
The pandemic, urging more employees to work out of their home, will likely create even more of those remote tech workers.
The opportunity is here and the future is limitless. Now it’s up to Thiel, who’s experienced both success and failure, to chart the future course of Marquette’s Smartzone and Invent@NMU which, to be fair, can be considered only partial successes so far.
Oh, one more thing. Thiel isn’t your ordinary CEO. He’s living in a camper now and looking to buy property for it. Ultimately, he wants to build a log cabin tree house and live, self-sustaining, off the grid.