Grand Rapids is a hotbed for startups, so it wasn’t a surprise when Michigan State University affiliate Conquer Accelerator chose five Grand Rapids-based startups that represent various industries to invest in.
“There were several cities that requested our accelerator throughout the state, but we chose Grand Rapids because we thought that was the best place where we could have an impact first,” said Jeff Wesley, executive director of Red Cedar Ventures.
The five startups selected to create the first Grand Rapids cohort were FirstIgnite, Airway Innovations, Building Catalyst, Lawnbot and The Patient Company. The 10-week accelerator program provides each startup with a $20,000 investment, mentorship, opportunities for collaboration and other resources such as legal advice and market data.
“We are pretty agnostic as far as the type of startups we support (but) we are looking for those that can provide high growth, and high tech is a nice element to startups,” Wesley said. “We really want to support those that can grow the community, bring jobs and really have the opportunity to be successful toward commercialization.”
All five startups within the cohort have some element of technology.
Chase Bonhag is a co-founder and CEO of FirstIgnite, which builds software that helps uncommercialized scientific research get to market. FirstIgnite partners with 10 universities, including Carnegie Mellon University, Drexel University, Auburn University, Notre Dame, University of California-Davis and the Research Foundation for State University of New York.
“Universities are probably the biggest conductors of research, and what happens is that a lot of money gets funded into universities, research takes place, and they have to find a commercial partner to bring it out of the university setting,” he said. “So, FirstIgnite has been good at matching scientific research or patents to what industries are interested in,” he said.
Research Foundation for State University of New York is conducting research that uses ionic wind to power the flight of drones. Bonhag said they were able to connect that piece of research to almost 10 different potential industry partners, including drone manufacturing, drone service and drone software companies.
With Conquer Accelerator, Bonhag said they have been able to cover a slew of topics that surround strategy, grant support and educational support. Conquer Accelerator has many sponsors including Foster Swift, which Bonhag said they are now using as their law firm.
“Legal fees are expensive; everything is expensive and all of us as entrepreneurs do not know much about the legal world,” he said. “I am not a lawyer, so their willingness to help us is huge.”
Airway Innovations is a medical company that develops airway management solutions and Eric VanMiddendorp, founder and CEO, said the first product they are looking to bring to market is its TubeTrac, an oral endotracheal tube holder. It was created to prevent extubating and reduce the need for physical restraints and/or sedation.
“It is a breathing tube holder for hospital patients in the intensive care unit who are on a mechanical ventilator,” he said. “Basically, these patients have a breathing tube put down their throat because they can’t breathe on their own. These patients are heavily sedated but as they are being weaned off of that sedation and they are starting to wake up they are just really agitated, confused, they don’t know where they are, and the tube gives them a really bad choking sensation. So these patients will reach up and pull out their breathing tube and doing so will make them lose some of their mechanical ventilation, which can be bad for the patient.”
VanMiddendorp said they launched the product while enrolled in the Conqueror Accelerator program and they are actively getting feedback. He said he is looking to try TubeTrac at several health care systems over the next few months.
“The significant benefit that I get from Conquer is connections like consumer discovery on the sales,” he said. “MSU has a really extensive network of facilities like hospitals or employees that are in the health care field, who are industry players who can potentially become partners for our company, and they are so well connected with advising and mentorship. They are able to get people from around the state who just want to help. They have been there, they have done that, and they can give us great advice and direction anywhere from financial feedback to commercialization strategy for our company.”
Mark Sands, Bruce Carlson and Scott Jasperse in 2012 co-founded Building Catalyst, which is an SaaS (software as a service) application that provides construction planning, modeling and cost management solutions.
Sands said it took about seven-and-a-half years to design and test the software with real-world market data and then attract some large national construction companies. Once they began attracting big outfits like Boldt Company, which has a Michigan office in Wixom, they realized they had to start growing the company and find funding. After successfully receiving a few grants, the business was accepted into the Conquer Accelerator program.
“Conquer Accelerator is essential for us to move from a startup to a viable national enterprise to help transition construction into the digital age,” Sands said.
“Grand Rapids could be the center of construction innovation based on applying what W. Edwards Deming, a statistician and physicist who transformed manufacturing (did), and also what Steelcase did, pioneering manufacturing-inspired construction.”
Sands said he helped to manage Steelcase’s design and construction process.
He said he would ultimately like to attract over $2 million in funding, but getting $500,000 to continue to grow the company would be a good start. In a little over a month, Sands said Conquer has helped him become aware of the many resources that are available to entrepreneurs.
“There is just a whole world of funding out there like venture capital and angel funding that we are learning a lot about,” he said. “We are learning how to communicate with people who aren’t experts in our industry in a way to help them understand the value in what we are doing — in our case construction — and prepare us to attract those investors. We learned about Small Business Innovation Research grants through the federal government. At some point, we may be able to get funding from the federal government. The guys who we are working with, particularly Tom (Stewart) and Frank (Urban), have all kinds of connections. One of those connections is a talent recruiter and they helped us develop a strategic plan and put that plan together. It is really a horizon-expanding world for me. It is just an area that I have never been involved in before. It is out there, there are resources out there to the depth of which I never would have understood if I had not gotten into this program.”
Lawnbot was started in 2018 by Kendall Hines and Erik Alburg. It is a software company that offers a web and mobile sales and payment platform for a variety of home care companies, some of which deal with mosquitoes, pest control, carpet cleaning and home cleaning.
“Joining Conquer Accelerator is a big step in helping Lawnbot scale its products into the $150 billion green industry,” Hines said. “Being a Conquer alum is a mark of distinction for any high-growth company here in Michigan. Participating in the program exposed us to all the expertise of Michigan State University’s extensive network. Conquer Accelerator presented a significant opportunity for Lawnbot to connect with top early-stage investors and mentors while accelerating the development of the company.”
The Patient Company developed and produced SimPull, the first fully automated lateral patient transfer device.
“What I like about the program is the sense of community,” Bonhag said. “Why that is so important is that we have been in business for almost two years now. We have been by ourselves. My team and I have been working really hard but were very alone. There are other startups but being in a cohort, being with (four) other companies that are going through the same things, although in different markets, the sense of community is huge.”