Printed prototyping steals spotlight at Startup Weekend


Participants in the 2015 Startup Weekend turned their attention to 3D printed prototyping and industrial design this year as innovators, designers, programmers, students and entrepreneurs convened in Grand Rapids for the three-day competition.

The entrepreneurs behind HEX, a wireless- and Bluetooth-enabled armband designed for snowboard and ski enthusiasts, were recognized as Best Overall winners of the sixth annual Startup Weekend Jan. 18 in Start Garden’s downtown facility.

Competing against nine other groups of entrepreneurs, the six-person team behind HEX was announced the overall winners following final presentations after the 54-hour, pitch-and-build competition came to an end. The members are Tyler Gorczyca, Tyler Beckas, Ryan Peningar, Zach Williams, Alison O’Shea and Sergio Troiani. Within three days, the team was able to produce a 3D-printed prototype of the armband, create the board, assemble the electronics and print rubber cases for the product.

Casey DuBois, business development for Mutually Human and member of the board and advisory committee for Startup Weekend, said the winning team worked longer and harder than some of the other teams, and it showed in what they were able to produce.

“Their product was for snowboarding and skiing. If you are listening to your headphones, in order to change the music, you have to take your glove off,” said DuBois. “So they made a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth remote that would strap on to your arm.”

Each of the teams behind the 10 final ideas was given access to Start Garden’s facility until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, before having the option to continue working later in the GR Makers’ facility, according to DuBois.

The projects were voted on by the 150 participants after having heard 35 one-minute pitched ideas on Friday night.

“If you pitched and your idea didn’t get worked on, you still stayed and helped somebody else with their project. That is what it is all about,” said DuBois. “There are 150 people that all get together and share their information, which you are not going to get at any other point in time. You have people there for 54 hours to give advice on sales, production or manufacturing. That is where it really helps flesh those ideas out.”

Among the participants were 55 students representing area colleges and universities, including Grand Valley State University and Kendall College of Art and Design. With the largest makeup of students the event has ever had, DuBois said it was really exciting to hear their new ideas.

“Students don’t tend to think with some of the same barriers,” said DuBois. “It was really neat and refreshing, but it was also cool to pair those students with some experienced business professionals in the community and have some advisors from the community to help them with their ideas.”

During the course of the weekend, the teams had support from event coaches and mentors, and external feedback from the Greater Grand Rapids area business community as they developed strategic business models, customer development plans, market validation research and prototypes.

The coaches and mentors included: Felip Ballesteros, startup communicator at GR Current; Ryan Vaughn, co-founder at Varsity News Network; Paul Jaques, director of student and community engagement for Spartan Innovations; Mike Bopp, developer at Rapid Development Group; Lisa Lane, founder of The Inside Lane; Austin Dean, director of business operations at GR Current; Scott Dodd, startup analyst at GR Current; Thomas Schliep, founder of TMS Advisors; and Tom DeVries, a design and business strategist.

Other startup ideas developed over the weekend included a scanner used to determine which eyeglass frames will fit an individual’s face, a 3D-printed bracelet used to detect the wearer’s alcohol content level, an application designed to charge a user $1 for every minute they are late to an appointment, a website-based platform connecting writing enthusiasts and illustrators, and Spectator, an application created to track an athlete during a race.

Ballesteros, who was also involved in the organizing team, said criteria used to evaluate the products during the final presentation included feasibility for launch, business plan formulation, prototyping, desirability, and customer or business validation.

HEX won best overall startup, and Spectator was recognized for best business model, while Patchwork Tales earned the distinction of best customer validation and Refresh was awarded best execution.

Ballesteros said accessibility to venture capital is very possible in West Michigan and it is a question about developing talent currently in the area and then attracting more talent to the area.

“Startup Weekend is a platform to really give an introduction into the vibrancy of everything that is happening in that idea stage for people,” said Ballesteros. “A lot of people are passionate and want to do something, but they are not given enough outlets. Startup Weekend is one of those outlets and, frankly, I think it is a big deal. One of the speeches I gave during Startup Weekend was saying how accessible the resources are in West Michigan.”

Spectator has already reached out to GR Current to outline a basic business plan and strategy for moving forward, and is in discussion with those organizing the Fifth Third River Bank Run in May, according to Ballesteros.

Although the 2015 Startup Weekend had a large turnout and its highest student representation, DuBois said there were not as many business experts from the community participating in the event.

“It was good and bad because we didn’t have as much of that experience from the community. We drew them in from the outside anyway, and the teams were all just real young, fresh thinking, and had lots of great ideas,” said DuBois. “It was a great event. We are hoping to have a couple hundred people next year and make it a bigger and better event.”

Another difference this year was the shift in focus from software to physical prototyping, especially as access to 3D printers has increased. Due to the large population of software developers in Grand Rapids, when the event started six years ago the ideas focused on databases, websites and mobile applications.

“When we started six years ago, it was all software,” said DuBois. “Now it is more physical stuff. The students at Kendall had access to the Kendall lab with 3D printers and scanners. GR Makers opened our space so people could have access to our 3D printers, and a guy on the winning team had his own 3D printer.”

Along with the push toward prototyping and industrial design this year, Ballesteros said the participants seemed to have an increased knowledge in business nomenclature and viable models.

“Before, coaches and mentors spent a lot of time articulating business models, business cases, as opposed to the pitching,” said Ballesteros. “I think that speaks to this new startup culture in Grand Rapids. I think the more we find ourselves in an increasing awareness of what it means to be a startup, the language is becoming part of the vernacular in West Michigan.”

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