Dugener was hired by Grand Valley State University last June to run the school’s new SmartZone, which is situated high atop the Michigan Street hill on the fifth floor of the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences building. The university has expressed a lot of confidence in his abilities and people are expecting big things from the 32-year-old.
“Matt has the ability and vision to help advance Grand Valley’s work in forward-looking research and tech-nology development,” said GVSU Provost Gayle Davis upon his arrival.
“Matt brings a clear understanding of the issues and challenges facing the Grand Rapids SmartZone. That understanding, combined with his technical aptitude, make him highly qualified to lead this SmartZone,” added John Gracki, GVSU associate vice president of Academic Affairs.
After talking with Dugener, he seems to be the right choice to tackle the heady task he has before him. How come? Because his professional passions are community and economic development. He believes both are intricately tied together as keys to a higher standard of living for an area, in addition to both being able to form the technological advances that can put a city on the world’s high-tech map.
Dugener came to the university after two years at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the state agency that designed and promoted the SmartZone concept. There he ran and fine-tuned the SmartZone program, which he sees as a vital tool that a community can use to merge the latest technology into its current development plans.
“In short, I worked with local communities to design the technology infrastructure for business growth,” he said.
Although Dugener worked closely with GVSU officials in setting up the downtown zone, that assignment wasn’t his first contact with them. He got to know the school’s personnel when he helped them design the university’s SmartZone in Muskegon, where he spent more than four years as the city’s Business Development Specialist before joining the MEDC. Now he leads the school’s zone in Grand Rapids as its first-ever executive director.
“The effort is so brand new we’re basically in the process of operationalizing it. It’s the equivalent to working on any small start-up business. We have a lot of operational items that we have to get up and running initially. So that is kind of our first step: going through a strategic planning process,” he said of his first few months on the job.
“We’ve also been working with a number of clients and small businesses who are ready to do something right now. We’re working on our main mission, which is working with those small companies and entrepreneurs to commercialize technology. But at the same time, we’re working through a lot of the start-up issues as well,” he added.
The downtown SmartZone has lab and office space available for those in the biotech, or life sciences, field, and part of Dugener’s responsibility is to put the right firm in the correct spot. But filling the space quickly isn’t his top priority.
Rather, his main concern is that the space is filled appropriately, and that partially explains why there aren’t any tenants there yet. Dugener did say that there were a couple of firms that may begin to use space in the building relatively soon, but they likely wouldn’t become fifth-floor tenants. And there is another reason why no one has moved in.
“A lot of the companies that we will be working with have to go through a lot of regulatory processes and just starting up a company isn’t like starting a restaurant or a more traditional business,” he said. “So, it’s a long-term process.”
What Dugener likes best about his new position is he gets to share in the excitement that the biotech developers have about their ideas, while he tries to create a surrounding where they can thrive commercially. He is keeping his fingers crossed that maybe just one of those start-ups will become the next big biomed firm that will provide the city with lots of new employment opportunities. But beyond that, he also admires the belief they have that their work will enhance all of society.
“Helping them achieve that dream is very satisfying,” he said.
Dugener was born in Owosso. His family, however, moved to Muskegon when he was seven and raised him in the Port City, a terrific blue-collar town that battled unemployment for a long time. Having to watch his city struggle to maintain industry and decent jobs for its residents is what sparked his interest in community improvement projects, which led him to adopt economic development as his life’s work.
“I’m working to create an environment where there is a real availability of good-paying jobs. To me, that is the bottom line. Everything else that is good about a community starts with the quality of jobs that are available,” said Dugener. “And that is what excites me about working in this field.”
To get to where he is today, Dugener earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Central Michigan University and a master’s degree in urban planning and economic development from Michigan State University. Dugener is married to Susan, a teacher, who is staying home with their two young sons on the west side of Lansing while he commutes to Grand Rapids. For fun, the Dugeners head outdoors. He fly fishes, mountain bikes and does triathlons — three, so far. The family hikes, camps and backpacks.
As for his immediate future, Dugener said he wants to design the environment that will help his clients get their ideas to market and achieve some commercial triumphs.
“The primary short-term goal is to put all those pieces of the puzzle together and have all of the technology assets of the region working together like a fine, oiled machine. Another goal is to really work to identify some exciting new technologies that can be developed in the Grand Rapids region, whether those technologies are already in the region or whether we import these from other areas,” he said.
“Bringing the technology here is kind of the new model of economic development. The new model is importing science, importing technology, and then having the infrastructure there to build that into successful companies.”