SURGE Boostcamp reaches the next level

Seven startups complete ‘basic training’ and now are working to prove their company ideas.
The Orindi mask is a cold-weather, low-profile breathable mask for asthma and cold climate/indoor cold storage applications. Courtesy Orindi

Lakeshore Advantage is conducting its second cohort of SURGE Boostcamp with an updated approach this fall.

SURGE is a resource for entrepreneurs that offers a “powerful push forward, a boost of energy that can help startups achieve their next growth milestones,” according to Lakeshore Advantage. SURGE offers navigation, programming, events, meetups and resources that entrepreneurs can plug into when they need to “surge” forward at each stage of early growth.

Boostcamp is a mentor-driven, 12-week “proof of concept” program within SURGE designed to help startups identify their true target market; get input from customers; “de-risk” their business; build a solution that the marketplace wants; and get a framework, accountability and coaching to keep them focused and on track.

Gentex is the corporate sponsor of this year’s SURGE Boostcamp.

The seven companies in this fall’s cohort have completed the “basic training” portion of the program and now are in the high-intensity “active duty” sessions in which they are working to prove their startup business ideas through customer validation.

Amanda Chocko, director of entrepreneurship for Lakeshore Advantage, said this year’s cohort is a diverse group of startups.

Participants this year include:

  • Jeff King, of Aviation Engine Analyzer, which analyzes data collected from when an aircraft engine is running for better efficiency and maintenance
  • Luciano Hernandez, of Ignight Lights, a patented solar product that uses a sensor and LED lighting for trucks, kayaks and other applications
  • Christopher Kaminsky, of Lakeshore Fab Lab, a membership-based lab space that includes 3D printers, scanners, vinyl printers and prototyping equipment
  • Skyler Hoort, of Loei Apothecary, a customizable apothecary of self-care products, including tonics, bath salts, medicinal teas and more, delivered monthly to the customer’s home
  • Eric Freeman, of Mindset Meals, which delivers health-focused, ready-to-eat meals to individual and business customers
  • Jordan Vanderham, of Orindi, which offers a cold-weather, low-profile breathable mask for asthma and cold climate/indoor cold storage applications
  • Christopher Simmons, of Studiohenre, which sells bio-available nutrition products

There are a few differences in this year’s approach to Boostcamp compared to the approach taken with the first cohort, which the Business Journal reported on after its graduation in November 2019.

This year’s Boostcamp is all virtual due to COVID-19 and has switched from a curriculum developed by Stanford University professor Steve Blank to the LEANSTACK platform developed by Ash Maurya. Both are based on lean startup methodology, but LEANSTACK uses structured “playbooks” to help entrepreneurs multiply their company’s traction by 10 with each module — and, in general, is better suited to a virtual cohort model, as it offers user-friendly integrated online tools, content and coaching resources, Chocko said.

The four program mentors, Chocko and the startup teams meet together weekly in two-hour Zoom sessions using breakout rooms and file- and screen-sharing to deliver the content and discussions, which Chocko said has been working out well as a “second-best” option while groups are unable to meet in person.

Each startup is expected to spend at least an additional 10 hours each week prepping for class, conducting customer interviews and meeting with the mentors and other participants to help drive their companies forward.

This year’s Boostcamp mentors are Russ Fyfe, Fyfe LLC; Nick Hayhoe, Fleetwood Group; Laurel Romanella, Laurel & Co.; and Bryce Kaiser, 86 Repairs and Hoom House.

Kaiser said he is impressed with the startup owners’ commitment and drive.

“These teams have already learned in four weeks what takes most entrepreneurs months or years to learn,” he said. “That accelerated knowledge, wrapped with the accountability and support structure of SURGE, is a winning combination. Frankly, I wish this programming existed when I started my first venture.”

Vanderham, a 2018 graduate of Grand Valley State University and founder and CEO of Orindi, which he started while he was in college, said “sticking his neck out” to connect with customers has been a valuable part of the Boostcamp program for him.

“(It’s) reaching out to the people in your sector. Some people are in the food industry, and they just started cold calling companies like Gordon Food Service and reaching out to family and friends to test recipes. For me, Orindi is a (low-temperature) mask company, so I’ve been on Facebook groups trying to find people who work in freezers just to get a personal relationship with, (and) I’m also going through LinkedIn to connect with executives and health and safety managers of those larger companies,” he said.

He also appreciated the emphasis in the first few weeks on foundational structuring of the company, using the business model canvas to identify the problems the entrepreneurs believe they are solving and the customers they believe they are reaching, and then next, doing design “sprints” to validate their hypotheses.

“It’s a whole lot more of a mature development cycle than spending money to make a prototype and show it to someone,” he said. “We’re making sell sheets and calling people, which is awesome compared to what I’ve done in the past.”

Vanderham said the breakout group meetings with mentors have been helpful because not only does he get to do a 30-minute deep dive into his own business questions and ideas, but he also gets to hear the advice to the other entrepreneurs in the small group, who ask different questions or share insights that he might not have otherwise heard. Since all the businesses are very different concepts, Vanderham said there is no fear of revealing competitive secrets; it’s just “enlightening and fun” to learn about the other startups.

Orindi masks currently are available for sale at for $145 under a business-to-business sales model, but Vanderham expects that after working with technical service companies and moving forward to invest in tooling, the price of the mask will go down and will be more accessible for consumers to buy for outdoor winter recreation.

“I’m so grateful to be involved in Boostcamp, because they give us a solid foundation,” he said.

Chocko said while the Boostcamp program aims to be very open and welcoming to all entrepreneurs, it is best suited to product and technology startups that have the time to spend 15-plus hours per week on developing their proof of concept.

Her goal after 12 weeks, she said, is to see graduating startups have a clear idea of whether their business idea, model, product, etc., is on track.

“A large percentage of startups don’t make it. Some don’t even get off the ground, and others don’t make it past the first three to five years. Quite often, that’s because they launched a product without actually going and speaking to the customers first about it. They would execute on a business plan, as opposed to getting this validation (of) who their target market is, making those early sales and validating whether they should pour a lot of resources into the development or that they’re actually creating the right thing,” Chocko said.

“The hope is that by the end of the program, they have a ‘go/no go’ on their idea and can either kill it rather quickly, or pivot, or just keep carrying on because they validated their direction.”

She said she doesn’t like to use the word “failure” when ideas don’t work out, because it’s all part of the learning process.

Chocko said SURGE is continuing to refine and improve its offerings and is aiming to eventually offer a couple of Boostcamp cohorts a year as well as wraparound support that will help businesses prepare to get the most out of the program before they start and will help them continue growing afterward.

She said entrepreneurs who are interested should contact Lakeshore Advantage now rather than waiting for the next application period to open.

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