GRAND RAPIDS — In only its third year in West Michigan, transplant technology firm Norseman Games is looking to carve out a new industry cluster around its battle-tested niche.
Its core product is the online fantasy role-playing game The Realm Online. At 10 years old and in its third version, The Realm is the oldest and largest gaming environment of its kind.
In 2003, the Wocholz family acquired the game and began plans to relocate it from Silicon Valley to Grand Rapids. COO Ellington Ellis, the Indiana stockbroker in charge of the Wochholz family’s assets, was recruited to take over the day-to-day operations of the fledgling company. Admittedly, he first suggested operations remain in California, but could not persuade the family against a West Michigan headquarters.
“I’m not from the area (and) neither is Mike or AJ, but we’re glad we’re here,” Ellis said, referring to General Manager Michael Crow and Research and Development Director Akio “AJ” Yokoyama. “And if we’re going to be living here, we want to make it a great place for gaming. We want to produce these games from the talent we have here in the community.”
Norseman, the only company of its kind in the Midwest, has teamed up with another Midwest exclusive, Ferris State University-Grand Rapids’ Digital Animation and Game Design program.
In partnership with The Right Place Inc., FSU and Grand Valley State University, Norseman has formed the Technology Sustainability Advisory Council (TSAC). Through this, Norseman hopes to spearhead an initiative similar in intent to the region’s Life Sciences Corridor.
“There is a passion for biolife in this area; that’s why you’re seeing such growth in that,” Ellis said. “Life sciences is a great and wonderful thing, but it’s still tunnel vision. If we have multiple strong industries growing, then if one of us gets a cold, we won’t all get sick.”
In the long run, TSAC hopes to entice West Coast companies such as EA Games and Sony to establish West Michigan satellites. In the short term, the FSU program will produce its first graduates in 2007, and Norseman hopes to have jobs waiting.
Albeit from a small base, the combined computer and mathematical occupations is expected to grow faster over the next decade than any other field in the Grand Rapids area — including health care — with a 32.4 percent projected increase between 2002 and 2012, according to the state’s labor office.
Yet, the field is largely overlooked by the community and underserved by economic development and educational efforts. West Michigan barely noticed when homegrown e-commerce firm iMart was acquired by publicly traded Smart Online last fall.
As a first-phase venture in an extremely competitive industry dominated by large market companies, iMart developed relationships with Fruit of the Loom, Fashion Bug, Chadwick’s of Boston, Bissell and Alticor. Its platform was used in InforMD’s Advoca interactive system, one of the first launches from the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative.
On that note, the first commercial product from the Van Andel Research Institute was not a pharmaceutical but a software application, XenoBase, released on the same day as iMart’s merger announcement.
“The Grand Rapids region is looking for innovative ways to take part in the information age,” said iMart CEO Gary Mahieu. “At the grassroots level, entrepreneurs are ready to take part in doing that. But at the government, university and policy level, we’re not ready to do that.”
A year ago, Troy-based NuSoft Solutions acquired Sagestone Consulting — an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and one of Grand Rapids’ most prolific young technology firms.
“IMart, as with Sagestone, was acquired for all the right reasons,” said Sagestone founder and NuSoft President of Business Development Keith Brophy.