GV’s Muskegon Innovation Hub honors first ever Innovator of the Year

Courtesy / GVSU

Courtesy / GVSU

McKenna Peariso

Grand Valley State University has several pillars in its mission for students and the community, some of which include sustainability, education and enrichment. However, one pillar of GVSU’s mission that is sometimes overlooked is innovation. This aspect of the university’s mission is fulfilled by its Muskegon Innovation Hub, which provides support to local entrepreneurs and startup companies including those from within GVSU.

The university’s Innovation Hub awarded its first ever Lakeshore Innovator of the Year title at a ceremony on March 14. Innovation Hub Director Kevin Ricco said this award is meant as a ‘round of applause’ to local innovators who are contributing to the greater good of the community.

“There’s a lot of pillars that are required to build up and sustain a community of excellence,” Ricco said. “That is what we do at the hub and this award is just a piece of that. It’s really about honoring them and recognizing them for their hard work and creativity.”

Five finalists were named prior to the award ceremony, with each having its own unique impact on the local community. One of the finalist groups was a class of students at the Muskegon Area Career Tech Center who created a specialized desk for an elementary student in Montague with visual and mobility issues. 

Other finalists for the innovator award included a company creating specialty LED lights, a patent process that infuses hydrogen into carbonated beverages and an invention that preserves freshwater. While all of the finalists were clearly worthy of the award, only one could win. Ricco admits it was a difficult decision and that each of the finalists are doing amazing work in their own right.

The winner of the first Lakeshore Innovator of the Year award was Camp Shout Out, a program that ties the summer camp experience with speech therapy. Started by two speech language pathologists, the camp is located in Holton, Mich. and assists more than 100 children between the ages of 8 and 18 in each week-long session. Co-founder Julie Raynor accepted the award at the March 14 ceremony and was excited to share the unique work Camp Shout Out has been doing since 2011. 

“Our main focus is we want to help kids who stutter evolve as communicators throughout their life,” Raynor said. “Therapy is embedded throughout the day in what we are doing. By also providing that training to our specialists we are spreading that message out so specialists can take what they have learned and provide it for kids who can’t come to camp.”

The camp program combines hands-on training for language pathologists and graduate students with the fun of a residential summer camp. By tying speech therapy and an enjoyable camp environment together, Raynor says many first time campers return to camp each year and move on to become volunteers, recreation staff and even speech pathology students. GVSU student Madison Nichols is just one of those campers who has remained with the program. 

Following her speech at the innovator award ceremony, Raynor was approached by another finalist whose son, who also had a stutter, was moved by Camp Shout Out’s work. Raynor then introduced the young boy to a previous Camp Shout Out camper, who is now studying speech language pathology at Calvin College.

“I could see the look of amazement on this little boy’s face who has probably never heard anyone else stutter,” Raynor said. “Here is this cool college kid who is stuttering openly. Being a part of this innovative award process, if it opens the door for one kid that’s so worth it.” 

It is the program’s uniqueness that both Raynor and Ricco believe is why Camp Shout Out was selected as Innovator of the Year. The camp’s innovation in speech therapy in a residential camp setting is currently the only one of its kind and brings in fluency specialists from around the globe.

“What these two women have created and put together, it is the first of its type,” Ricco said. “The understanding that if you are unable to communicate it sets back so many other things as you go forward in life. I think it was the uniqueness and the connection to youth that put them at the top.”

GV’s Muskegon Innovation Hub began presenting the award this year as a way to recognize local programs and entrepreneurs making a difference in innovation and creativity in the community. According to Ricco, the decision to start the award comes from the recent re-branding of the Muskegon and lakeshore areas that are churning out new innovative minds and ideas. As the public may not know much about the amazing things coming out of local businesses, the Innovator of the Year award aims to bring those innovators to the forefront.

“If you stop and think about the things that happen every day at Grand Valley, the creative and innovative things we do whether its sustainability or educationally, our whole premise is to be at the forefront of innovation,” Ricco said.

“This award ties in really nicely with that.”