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The Ina Mae Rude Entrepreneur Center at the University of North Dakota's Center for Innovation in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Completed in 2005, totaling $4 million, the building was designed to showcase the latest building technologies and Green building practices. (Image courtesy of ICON Architectural Group)

Innovating an area ICON: Tech ties architectural group to regional expansion

While the rest of the state is working to improve taking resources out of the ground, ICON Architectural Group is continuing to bloom from a small company into one of the Midwest’s premier architectural firms, helping to build the infrastructure needed for North Dakota’s sustained growth, but also helping to foster the region’s growing, innovative, tech sector.

It all started in 2002 when ICON Architectural Group found its humble beginning in the shared space of the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Mike Kuntz and Todd Mitzel, working in the shared creative space, developed a firm driven by value while building rapport with their clients with their approach to listen, understand, communicate and suggest the best route to take for any given project.

Developed in 1984, the Center for Innovation was one of the first entrepreneur outreach centers in the country. The Center gives assistance to entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers to help launch new ventures, raise capital and bring new technologies to market.

Where communities inspire design

While working out of one of the Center’s tech incubators, they quickly built up their portfolio by working on a wide range of projects including addition, renovation, multifamily and hotel projects. Working off of their unique expertise in building technology integration, ICON also formed partnerships with global LED manufactures to design, engineer, and install LED video displays.

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“Our big focus at that point was leveraging technology to deliver the best design to our clients, and eventually we moved into the video display boards with all the technology on that side,” Mitzel said. As ICON Architectural Group continued to grow, their client base began to expand beyond North Dakota, besting competitors out of high-profile LED display projects at Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, National Hockey League and Nascar venues throughout the county.

At that time, Kuntz and Mitzel were also building their ties with the Center and its entrepreneur coach director, Bruce Gjovig. Being involved in the community of Grand Forks, as well as throughout the state, Gjovig’s influence helped lead ICON to design an addition to the Center for Innovation, the Ina Mae Rude Center. “Right away after we moved in we started designing the Ina Mae Rude Center with Bruce, so that kind of cemented our relationship with him, helping to create that place,” Mitzel said.

Construction of the Ina Mae Rude Center began in 2003, and it didn’t take long for the facility to be recognized at a national level for its artistic appeal and the extensive art collection that contributes to the innovative workspace. Around this time, the Center also became the first North Dakota Center for Excellence in Economic Development, creating more opportunities for the state’s entrepreneurs.

Parting ways, maintaining ties

“We were there nine years and we tried to move three different times, but Bruce kept giving us reasons to stay,” Mitzel said with a bit of laughter. “We just grew more and more into the Center until it came to the point where we had 50 percent of the space. We needed to get out and Bruce needed us out, I think, so it worked out well,” he said.

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After ICON grew out of the Center for Innovation, the team continued to develop their digital display systems and the latest green building technology to be used in their own, new $8 million building, similar to what was used in the design of the Center. ICON has since become one of the largest architectural firms in the region, based on its number of employees and its roster of clients across the nation.

ICON has continued to maintain its relationship with the Center since parting ways yet has adopted some of the values learned there as its own. “When we find someone who’s talking the world of entrepreneurship we often times point them Bruce’s way and say this is the guy you need to go talk to,” Mitzel said.

ICON’s relationship with the Center offers the company the opportunity to stay up to date with its current tenants and business partners, creating the opportunity to meet with them and potentially partner. Further strengthening the relationship, ICON was asked to sponsor this year’s Center for Innovation Startup Weekend. The three day event, held October 16 through the 18, is designed to help developers, designers, marketers, product managers, students and anyone else with a bright idea, work to make their concepts a reality.

Innovating a new North Dakota

Kyle Kvamme, business development manager for ICON, said the company will be involved by observing and offering input where it can. Also, they will sponsor one winner with a $1,000 prize and will offer its services to help that winner design a logo and to set up a branding guide. “We’re just excited to be a part of helping foster growing companies or sparking ideas that might turn into a company,” Kvamme said.

Mitzel added, “It’s something we can sponsor pretty easily because as we’ve gone through our careers, there’s been so many times where we’ve wanted to spark or promote an idea but we didn’t have the forum to do it. It’s something we can relate to from that perspective for sure.” Additionally, ICON had several of its own employees participating in the event, working on their own startups.

And while the state’s economy has shifted its focus to oil and gas, Mitzel said that from ICON’s work throughout the state, they have encountered some smaller oil and gas companies interested in discussing entrepreneurial business development. However, it seems the fastest growing trend is in the development of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), evident in the United States’ first commercial UAS business and aviation park located at the Grand Sky facility in Grand Forks.

ICON Architectural Group is now the master plan architect for the entire Grand Sky site, the visitor center, as well as the building for aerospace and technology company Northrop Grumman, the first tenant of Grand Sky. The Center is currently heavily involved with several UAS companies, such as Sky Skopes and EdgeData, firms focused on aerial surveys and data collection. The recent groundbreaking of the Northrop Grumman facility solidifies ICON’s stature in the community and is further evidence that humble beginnings can foster the growth of not only a single company, but the expansion of a regional economy as well.

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