Newsmaker: Start Garden feeds startup culture


Rick DeVos speaks to the crowd at a Start Garden Update Night. Photo via

Editor’s note: The Business Journal is recognizing 10 nominees for its 2012 Newsmaker of the Year Award, based on their long-term economic impact on the region. One nominee will be featured each day on — leading up to the Jan. 21 announcement of the 2012 Grand Rapids Business Journal Newsmaker of the Year.

It’s a widespread opinion that the birth of Start Garden in 2012 was one of the most important economic game changers for West Michigan.

Let’s start with the numbers.

Since its inception in April, Rick DeVos’ $15 million seed fund has been sowing entrepreneurial seeds with a vengeance. Approximately $1.73 million has been funded by the fund into 74 entrepreneurial projects, 67 of which started at the $5,000 level and 46 of which are still currently active.

There have been six Update Nights, and 26 advisors have donated more than 130 hours through Advisor Hours periods, educating startups on various topics, including intellectual property law, contract law, veteran entrepreneur advice, marketing presentation skills, industrial design, branding, technology, implementation, supply chain management, investments and engineering.

Similar to ArtPrize, which is his other highly visible venture, DeVos said he wants Start Garden to be a catalyst and a framework for entrepreneurs to run these experiments.

“The future of West Michigan is absolutely tied to the success of new businesses and new business models,” DeVos said. “It’s a fact that over time business models are killed. We need to find new businesses and keep growing in those investments. We’re a small part of that puzzle.”

The true secret to the economic impact Start Garden could have, however, may not lie in the numbers, but in entirely re-shaping the way the West Michigan culture perceives business.

DeVos said he’s not expecting a return for the first five to 10 years, but is trying to be successful in engagement around entrepreneurial projects.

“Over time, we’re hoping we can shift the culture here, so there is more acceptance of the inherent risk of startups,” DeVos said. “At the core is the idea that we know very little — that the only way to find the way forward is to start tinkering, get things in the marketplace and see what the marketplace says back.”

Paul Moore, Start Garden’s marketing director, said the answer to the question of how to bring back 80,000 jobs to Michigan may lie in making those 80,000 people create their own jobs independent of a larger corporation.

The entrepreneurial spirit used to be part of Michigan’s mindset, he said, but the attitude shifted as the entrepreneurial generation developed monolithic companies that provided the livelihood for the whole state. Amid a now recession-torn economy, he said, the state needs to start that entrepreneurial cycle again.

Start Garden’s true impact could be cultural, Moore said, changing the economy through helping individuals not rely on companies for their jobs, but on themselves.

“The culture of West Michigan for people who were making very early investments in startups was to do it very secretly, because they didn’t want to fail or be seen as failures,” he said. “If we’re going to change it, it’s going to be a cultural shift, leading to an economic change. And when you have a culture where that (entrepreneurial spirit) is not only accepted but embraced and encouraged, from there you see businesses begin to grow.”

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