For an entrepreneur, the transition from being a total stranger to sitting across the table from a possible multi-million dollar client needs to be seamless.
That’s why Start Garden — Rick DeVos’ Grand Rapids-based startup fund — named its new entrepreneurial commercialization accelerator Seamless.
The 12-week Seamless program, which recently finished its first group of business participants, is designed to help startups that are “a bit further down the line” make connections with larger, enterprise companies that already have partnered with Start Garden and act like consortium partners, said Paul Moore, head of communications.
Start Garden is like Switzerland, Moore said, a natural and objective meeting zone that can manage the program, allowing the different groups to talk to each other.
“Here’s what we found out over three years: There were so many startups that came to us and said, ‘Hey, this is really great that you’re investing, but can we have a meeting with Meijer, or Amway, or Bissell, or the fill-in-a-very-large-enterprise-company that we have a surprisingly large amount of here in a community where everybody knows each other?’” Moore said.
“Seamless was this insight of, we kept having enterprise companies, usually on the innovation team, come to us and say, ‘Hey, help us connect to startups and help us act more ‘start-up-y.’ These are essentially projects we wanted to see would a Steelcase project be interested in this.”
Seamless has a regional network of more than 30 resource partners. Once a business has applied and is accepted into the program, Start Garden gives each business $20,000 and takes 12 weeks to collaborate with those businesses on domain expertise, strategy, execution, prototype development, supply chain solutions, manufacturing and commercialization, testing the viability and feasibility of that startup.
During that time, connections also are made to Start Garden’s allied enterprise companies, giving those startups a chance to try their product and ideas out on the big players. That consortium’s roster is made up of Steelcase, Amway, Meijer, Priority Health, Spectrum Health and Faurecia.
This aspect of bringing small business to the table with big business completely changes the dynamic of the entire program, Moore said, because it connects entrepreneurs to robust channels.
“It’s a case for why it makes sense to start up in Grand Rapids and to get companies from the outside to come here,” he said.
“That’s the kind of stuff that’s here that isn’t in other places. That’s the first thing in the case that’s been made, to say this place — in the world of startups — is more intriguing than other cities that might be more attractive.”
Of the eight small businesses that were part of Seamless’ first group, only one was from Michigan. That company was AlSentis, a Holland-based touch-recognition technology provider. The rest were from places such as Great Britain, Hawaii, San Francisco, Miami, New York, Chicago and Milwaukee, said Justin Teitt, CEO of AlSentis.
For someone like Teitt, Seamless is essentially a place for companies that have huge market real estate and distribution channels to come into contact with innovative companies, as both try to discover if a relationship can be sparked.
“Many startup accelerators are kind of like ‘Lord of the Flies.’ They’re about bringing smart people together, giving them a chance to try an idea and see who bubbles to the top, and everyone else is forgotten. Seamless is a different. It’s built around collaboration with big players already in the market,” Teitt said.
Teitt called his experience with Seamless “amazing,” adding it was a launch pad to game-changing relationships for his company. AlSentis is now working on three new internal programs to keep up with the new demand, he said.
“We were in a transition period as a company, selling product competitively. As we were heading into Seamless, we weren’t treating it as these big businesses giving us ideas; we were treating it as a commercialization accelerator. We could show and prove the technology,” he said.
“Steelcase is now an investor in our company and we’re partnering with them to create smart surfaces. … We were able to go from not having meetings with them to being sponsored by them — really intense focus. They saw something in us.”