Start Garden launches entrepreneur-in-residence program

Darren Riley, co-founder/CEO of JustAir Solutions, will help accelerate early-stage tech startups.
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Among its first actions as one of the two new co-managers of the Grand Rapids SmartZone Incubator, Start Garden has launched an entrepreneur-in-residence program to support tech startups and tapped the first person to fill the role.

After a request for proposals in March, the city of Grand Rapids’ SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA) in September selected Start Garden and Spartan Innovations — the Michigan State University Foundation’s tech startup resource organization — to co-manage its SmartZone Incubator and related high-tech business support services.

Established in 2001, the Grand Rapids SmartZone captures increased property tax dollars in the Monroe North neighborhood and Medical Mile and reinvests that money back into the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

As the Business Journal previously reported, after reviewing Start Garden and Spartan Innovations’ separate proposals, the SmartZone LDFA selected both operators, contingent upon their successful collaboration with each other, to implement the SmartZone LDFA’s goals and objectives using tax capture dollars.

The entities began working collaboratively Sept. 15 to fill the role of incubator operators within the city’s Certified Technology District under a contract that runs through June 30, 2024.

In December, Start Garden began formally establishing an entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) program patterned after the MSU Foundation/Spartan Innovations’ existing EIR programs. Whereas the latter programs are more focused on tech transfer out of the university, Start Garden’s EIR will focus on developing tech startups in the Grand Rapids community.

Darren Riley. Courtesy JustAir

Start Garden selected as its first EIR 29-year-old Darren Riley — an information systems graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, founder and CEO of the Grand Rapids-based air quality tech startup JustAir, co-founder of the national angel fund for founders of color called Commune Angels, and former manager for entrepreneur selection and growth at Endeavor Detroit, a branch of a national entrepreneurial support organization.

Riley is contracted for 18 months as a 1099 employee of Start Garden and will be paid a $50,000 stipend, funded by the SmartZone tax capture, to spend at least 20 hours a week developing and supporting a portfolio of tech startups associated with the Grand Rapids SmartZone.

He will spend the remainder of his time working on his own startup, JustAir, which he co-founded with James Meeks and Hasib Ikramullah and which has placed sensors in the city of Grand Rapids to gather air quality data and uses proprietary software to assess the data collected and make it actionable.

Paul Moore. Courtesy Start Garden

“If there was a bullseye (for the EIR target), I would write on the bullseye the name ‘Darren Riley,’” said Paul Moore, a co-director of Start Garden who is helping to develop the EIR program. “… We got to know him through his startup, and as he was in the process of looking for places in Grand Rapids and transitioning from Detroit over to here, this EIR opportunity popped up, and it just seemed to fit him perfectly.”

Riley said he loves the “ecosystem-building” approach of Start Garden and felt the organization was a good nexus for it on the west side of the state, based on observations made from Detroit and nationally, as well as his own personal experience working with Start Garden to get funding and resources for JustAir.

“When you look at Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, two cities that are pretty far apart, they’re very collaborative, and their ecosystems really cross-pollinate. I think we do the same thing here in our region — share resources, share talent and really push each other, across the state. … I got approached about the EIR program, and given that I’m an entrepreneur myself and an investor … I thought it was a good match,” he said.

“I’m really passionate about other entrepreneurs and sharing resources and knowledge while I’m on this journey. Others are ahead of me, and others are just getting started, and so wherever I can help push our ecosystem in the right direction and also make it very inclusive — I was very aligned with Start Garden’s vision (of) reaching out, being proactive and being intentional about going to neighborhoods where problems can be solved.”

Riley said working for Endeavor Detroit gave him “pattern recognition,” which he plans to leverage in his EIR role.

“I saw all different industries, all different businesses around the globe, and I saw what works, what doesn’t work. … The best way to experience the startup world is to engage with those founders in a deep way. I see the same thing here and so the value for me, selfishly, is meeting these entrepreneurs who are very passionate, especially first-time founders who have a different approach and different culture when it comes to entrepreneurship — things I can take and share, as well.”

JustAir has placed sensors in the city of Grand Rapids to gather air quality data and uses proprietary software to assess the data collected and make it actionable. Courtesy JustAir

Riley said his angel fund, Commune Angels, focuses on investing in underrepresented founders and underrepresented problems, and JustAir also is tackling the problem of disproportionate air pollution in underrepresented neighborhoods. He said these focus areas feel like a good fit with the mission of Start Garden and will be what he hopes to focus on as EIR, as well.

Start Garden shared a job description for the EIRs that was based on the MSU Foundation’s template for its own EIR programs. The document said the EIR’s responsibilities will include helping to:

  • Determine commercially viable products and/or services
  • Define the potential market for these technologies
  • Develop a validation strategy for the identified technologies
  • Develop overall business model and investment/funding thesis
  • Support customer discovery for the technologies and accumulate industry feedback
  • Establish corporate documents and structure (ready the entity for investment, if not completed)
  • Develop financing strategy (and, if ready, start fundraising)
  • Develop near- and long-term corporate strategy
  • Identify/establish key relationships (consultants, vendors, etc.)
  • Pursue funding opportunities and assist Spartan Innovations in Small Business Innovation Research applications, if applicable

The EIR is required to file quarterly reports to the SmartZone LDFA on startup status, stage, milestones, timeline, funding and development.

The EIR has access to a year-round training program to cover areas he or she might have deficiencies in to ensure they are able to create a startup, generate a business plan and execute on that plan. 

EIRs can take an active role in the companies they support as CEO, president, COO, business development officer or other positions. Though EIRs are paid a stipend through the program, they also can draw salary and take equity in these companies, as well. 

After Riley’s 18-month contract, he will transition back to working on his startup full time and another EIR will be appointed for the remainder of Start Garden and Spartan Innovations’ three-year contract managing the SmartZone Incubator.

Those interested in learning more about the EIR program can contact Riley at darren@justair.co or Moore at paul@startgarden.com.

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