Partners report GR SmartZone growing

Start Garden, Spartan Innovations helped create eight startups, raise over $35M for ventures.
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Spartan Innovations and Start Garden reported this month economic development growth among high-tech startups is continuing in the region.

The partners, which jointly manage the Grand Rapids SmartZone Incubator, reported at the Grand Rapids SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA) board meeting May 10 that throughout the second quarter of the collaboration, (January-March), Spartan Innovations and Start Garden programs and initiatives have resulted in the following:

  • New companies created: The collaboration helped facilitate the creation of eight new companies, including Bambo, Farmish, Kozi and Spotter. The names of the others were not disclosed.
  • Funds raised: During Q2, Spartan Innovations and Start Garden assisted companies that have raised over $35 million in outside funding.
  • Venture growth and expansion: The partners supported the strategic growth and expansion of 113 companies and served 137 companies across the state.
  • Underrepresented companies: 50% of high-tech companies receiving entrepreneurial support services from Start Garden and Spartan Innovations were from underrepresented populations.
Kyle McGregor. Courtesy Spartan Innovations

“Spartan Innovations has experienced growth throughout the quarter, gaining traction compared to Q1 numbers,” said Kyle McGregor, director of health innovations at Spartan Innovations. “With the combined forces of the LDFA and the broader ESO (entrepreneurial support organization) community, we have every opportunity to not only work with a broad set of entrepreneurs in West Michigan, but also attract some of the best and brightest to come work in our ecosystem.”

One new company that was formed is Kozi. Kozi, an automated additional living expense vendor serving property-casualty insurance carriers, was among the growth companies highlighted at this month’s LDFA meeting. Since launching, Kozi has expanded its target market. Conversations with governmental and nonprofit agencies revealed the need for efficient temporary housing solutions for families who have been displaced due to emergencies and natural disasters. Kozi now is pursuing contracts with these agencies, as well as property and casualty insurance carriers and their vendors.

“Spartan Innovations, Start Garden and the Grand Rapids entrepreneurial ecosystem have been involved in every step of our development,” said Craig Sutherland, CEO of Kozi. “From our first whiteboard session to fully vetting the concept, creating a business plan and building our team, Grand Rapids has continued to offer support. Being one of the 100 winners (in 2021) allowed Kozi to fully launch and gave our team the momentum and confidence to truly pursue this project.”

Michigan STEM Forward, a statewide program that matches students attending Michigan colleges and universities with internship opportunities at leading innovative companies, also was featured during the LDFA’s May board meeting. Launched by Ann Arbor SPARK and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), Michigan STEM Forward expects 425 to 450 STEM students will be placed annually into STEM-focused internships throughout Michigan. 

Startups continue to play a significant role in driving economic growth in Michigan, thanks in large part to support from organizations like Start Garden, which has a monthly pitch competition, 5×5, that draws diverse talent from across the state. Earlier this year, 16-year-old entrepreneur Vishnu Mano won the competition’s top prize of $5,000 for Spotter, an app that helps drivers find the nearest open parking spot to solve the problem of finding downtown parking in Grand Rapids. The Business Journal featured Spotter in a previous report.

Paul Moore. Courtesy Start Garden

“Start Garden is about getting resources into the hands of entrepreneurs so they can get off the bench and into the game fast,” said Paul Moore, co-director of Start Garden. “Currently, we are taking submissions for our annual 100 competition. Anyone can submit a short video pitching their idea. One hundred are selected to receive $1,000, then compete to be among 10 to receive $20,000.”

One industry seeing substantial growth in Grand Rapids due to the ongoing introduction of innovative high-tech solutions is health care. Spartan Innovations and Start Garden recently participated in the inaugural Grand Rapids Confluence Fest Thought Series, which was held at the Secchia Center at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Confluence Fest, designed to spotlight “the transformative power of health care technology and innovation,” was developed to reinforce West Michigan’s role in the state’s health care entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“Confluence was an amazing event and only one small piece of the great things being built in Grand Rapids,” McGregor said. “Participating in the ‘Health Equity and the Digital Divide’ panel was an uplifting opportunity to openly talk about some of the biggest problems plaguing the tech community that often get swept under the rug. Similarly, working as a member of the Confluence steering committee was a perfect opportunity to help bring together some of the most dedicated and thoughtful leaders we have in the state.”

Seeking to build on the current momentum, the annual Grand Rapids Conquer Accelerator is set to launch its fall cohort Sept. 12 and run through Nov. 18. 

Over those 10 weeks, Conquer teams will follow a tailored curriculum designed to help startups and established companies overcome their challenges. Red Cedar Ventures has invested $200,000 in Conquer startup companies in the past two years to support the program. Emphasizing smart planning and growth, Conquer Accelerator is designed to empower startups with mentorship opportunities and expertise from an experienced bench of successful professionals. The Business Journal reported on the program’s progress in January.

Jeremiah Gracia. Robb McCormick Photography

“The SmartZone LDFA is proud of the partnership results to date,” said Jeremiah Gracia, director of economic development for the city of Grand Rapids. “Together, Spartan Innovations and Start Garden are building a strong ecosystem for high-tech entrepreneurial services available in the city of Grand Rapids. We look forward to building on this momentum and serving as a benchmark community in equitable high-tech entrepreneurial development.”

Spartan Innovations and Start Garden said they remain committed to focusing on meaningful collaboration, shared resources and partnerships across the Grand Rapids market, especially for early-stage startups. In Q2 2022, the LDFA Business Accelerator Fund’s $35,000 total was approved, with five BAFs approved to date and three additional applications under review.

More information is available on Spartan Innovations’ work by contacting McGregor at kyle@spartaninnovations.org, and people can reach Start Garden’s Moore at paul@startgarden.com.

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