How Small-Town Customs Are Transforming Grand Rapids Into An Innovation Hub

UX designer Joe Johnston and VC fund founder Rick DeVos share the top five reasons for coming up to Grand Rapids and getting down to business.

"In America, the West was about opportunity. In Michigan, it still is." It’s a bold statement to be sure, but it's one that The Right Place, a western Michigan economic development organization, along with other officials and investors based in Greater Grand Rapids, are serious about making a reality. 

Western Michigan still vibrates with the hum of the Motor City and its auto manufacturing cluster, but it is also home to companies such as Perrigo, Herman Miller, Steelcase, and Amway, which flog everything from software to health care products. Demand for "Dragon’s Milk," among other craft beers from New Holland Brewing Company, was the juice needed to power a $3 million expansion of its existing production plant, while Lacks Enterprises (makers of shiny chrome fittings for cars and appliances) is spending $31.9 million to build a new facility here. Despite being courted by Kentucky, Virginia, and South Carolina, the company decided to grow in its West Michigan backyard because of the business climate and cooperation of the state and economic development partners.

These days though, the buzz is just as likely to come from a growing group of tech-minded entrepreneurs, like Joe Johnston, bursting with ideas to put their hometown on the digital map.

Johnston, the lead user experience designer at Universal Mind, is developing an app called One Second Epic. Inspired by a TED talk, the app aims to make it easier to capture and stitch together video of those tiny slices of life that make up our personal experiences. Johnston says it wouldn’t have made it past the idea stage if not for the network and financial support of Start Garden. A brand-new, $15 million venture capital fund, Start Garden evolved from founder Rick DeVos’ early stage incubator Momentum and is one part investments, one part mentorship, and all parts community engagement. 

Fast Company sat down with DeVos and Johnston and invited them to dish about the doings in the Grand Rapids area. These are their top five reasons to come up and get down to business.

The startup community encompasses more than just tech geeks.

Start Garden may be kicking things into high gear with its commitment to invest $5,000 in two new ideas each week, but DeVos says the roots of support run deeper. "We’ve got a whole bunch of knowledge pools," DeVos says, citing the staffs of big corporate entities as well as local banks, law practices specializing in intellectual property, and manufacturers. 

"It’s about more than getting a funding round from an angel investor. There are people here who can help you do a first production run and get the product on store shelves," he says. Local business leaders from Fifth Third Bank, Steelcase, and Cascade Engineering, among others, have committed to be accessible to startup founders through weekly office hours or by meeting them in the Start Garden space. "The broader community is open, excited and engaged."

Hometown pride is cool again (and so are small businesses).

DeVos calls the industrial mindset "monolithic" and argues that the focus on large-scale enterprise needs to change. "I want to see 1,000 startups each employ a handful of people because there’s so much opportunity to solve problems," he says.

Hometown pride has become cool again, according to DeVos, and that’s helped the city rally behind new startups. He points to the fact that Grand Rapids’ denizens came out in droves for the city’s monthly 5x5 nights where new ideas were presented in five minutes by five slides. He says the presenters were always curated by a very involved community who wanted to support the push of creative innovation. "There’s an awareness that we need to try new things and let people pursue visions and not be focused on Big Three," he says.

Mentors abound.

Johnston says he served as a mentor for Momentum’s efforts by sharing expertise on user experience and design strategies. Now he’s building his own network of mentors, including several successful business owners, to help him with One Second Epic. "I don’t come from business side so they taught me how you should structure certain businesses, put more money into certain areas [R&D or marketing], how to handle documentation. They can help with all those questions."

Screw up and everyone knows it (a good thing!).

With an engaged community, there’s nowhere to hide if something doesn’t work out. But that’s a good thing, according to DeVos, who purposely made the initial investment small and added a reporting process into Start Garden seed funding. Ideas that snag an initial investment must incorporate as a Michigan LLC and report back in 60 to 90 days on their progress. 

"It’s easy to spend that money on Doritos and a PlayStation. But when you have to give a public account of what you’ve done you can get traction and social collateral for that investment. It’s a way to mitigate risk and not burn bridges."

Grand Rapids has capital-C culture.

A city that offers diverse cultural experiences can also spur innovation in business, DeVos says. He started ArtPrize, which has grown to a three-week-long event that introduced nearly half a million residents and visitors to the work of 2,000 contemporary artists whose installations were placed in approved locations throughout the city. 

"I’m definitely not from the art world, and industry exists outside of that, too," DeVos says. Beyond making things and getting customers, he believes sharing the act of creation in a participatory way like this can spark interesting business results. "We are working on new ideas very broadly, but sometimes even an old idea or really simple stuff can be inspired."

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #USInnovation. 

[Image: Flickr user Lis Bokt]

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