Kendall students win Startup Weekend competition


Participants in Startup Weekend holed up in The Factory in Grand Rapids over a weekend to see who could produce the best viable business. Photo by Mike Nichols

Students led and won the race to create the best business at Grand Rapids’ fourth annual Startup Weekend, hosted at The Factory space at 38 W. Fulton St.

Of 130 participants, many of whom were veteran competitors and experienced entrepreneurs, Kendall College of Art and Design assistant professor Jon Moroney’s industrial design class students Kris Konechne, Luc Fewer, Joe Parr, Josh McBryde, Austin Blough and Jake Mikula, along with Grand Valley State University MBA student Tim Spork, took first place in the three-day-race to create the best startup.

The eight-man team’s award-winning idea was U-Turn, a U-shaped storage option to help buyers keep their clutter manageable. Moroney’s class threw out ideas the week before and made their pitch Friday, Jan. 18. The idea attracted Spork, who works in Steelcase’s Growth Initiatives group, and the team was formed.

By mid-day Saturday the team had finalized the design, and Konechne, Blough and Mikula spent a sleepless night in a cold attic, hovering around a heater and gluing their model together.

What they created was one of Grand Rapids Startup Weekend’s first physical products.

“We were using the Kendall metal shop, but it closes pretty early so we had to go to my house,” Blough said. “I don’t have any power tools so we did most of the shaping with files and just whatever we could find. We finished it sometime early Sunday morning.”

Event organizer Aaron Schaap, founder of Elevator Up, a web and software development firm, said he was dazzled by how quickly the U-Turn team created a model.

“As a web tech guy, (I’m) always blown away that people can actually make things,” Schaap said. “The fact that they did it in a 54-hour timeline was just phenomenal.”

Team members said they plan to sell the product through a direct sales website and retailers after 62 percent of people surveyed by the U-Turn team said they’d buy it. The team found the basic unit cost of the product could be $5. Retail pricing would have a $19.99 base, with a $24.99 hardware cost.

First-time judge Julia Jamieson, experience designer at Elevator Up, served as one of the eight judges for the event, along with Rick DeVos, creator of Start Garden, Zach Dennis, co-founder of Mutually Human, John Burmeister, banker at Huntington Bank, Erik Loehfelm, executive vice president of user experience at Universal Mind, Ed Niehaus, advisor to Verify Valid, Jason Pliml, technology business consultant at Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center, and Kathleen Cook, business development director at IBM.

Jamieson said she looked closely at customer validation and research, saying U-Turn impressed the judges the most.

“U-Turn was great, especially the fact that it was a physical product. Across the board, they were the highest bidder for all of us,” she said. “We all said that was something we would want in our homes. I have makeshift versions of that in my home already, and they did a great job of telling their story.”

Moroney said he was very proud of his students and had no doubt they could execute. Activities like this will be continued in his class, he said, and should be part of the curriculum. His students all agreed.

“This was invaluable,” Fewer said. “There are just things you pick up being here that you’d never pick up in the classroom. You just immerse yourself in it.”

Although Spork, with a mostly finance background, was the only non-Kendall member of the team, he said working with the Kendall students shifted his perspective to the design side of projects.

The meeting and mixing feature of Startup Weekend is something all team members appreciated.

“(Designers) don’t worry about any of the (monetary) challenges. Anything’s a possibility,” Spork said. “And when you come from the finance side, you’re always trying to figure out how much things will cost, but to them the whole world is just open. It was really fun.”

Schaap said there were more students than usual at this year’s event, providing a great opportunity for them to meet investors and company owners, and get their feet wet in the entrepreneurial community of Grand Rapids.

“About half the audience here were students, so that was really nice to be able to see them, see their minds change about startups, and see how they appreciate the world and do things for themselves,” he said. “I personally loved it.”

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