WMSTI rebrands as GR Current


GR Current in downtown Grand Rapids launched its brand with a rooftop event at UICA. Photo via fb.com

GR Current is the once and future West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative. 

The Grand Rapids life science and emerging technologies business incubator, located on the fifth floor ofthe Cook-Devos Center for Health Sciences at 301 Michigan St. NE, recently changed its name and core team, re-launching itself as a new character in West Michigan’s ongoing startup story. 

“We’ve had to explain to people that we were formerly WMSTI,” said Director Jeff Royce.

GR Current, which runs on a grant and state initiative-funded budget of about $650,000, began in 2003 as a collaborative between the city of Grand Rapids, Van Andel Research Institute, The Right Place Inc., Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College. It has since expanded to include entrepreneurial names like Start Garden, The Factory, GR Collective, AimWest and the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Since inception, GR Current, which has gathered a total of $100 million in startup investments, has counseled over 740 clients, supported 26 clients and graduated 22 clients, creating 650 high-technology jobs in West Michigan. 

GR Current has the ability to provide the affordable space, resources, capital and networking connections for startups, Royce said, all because it’s in a SmartZone. 

“A SmartZone is a geographic boundary that allows the entity to, in essence … set a baseline for the property values, and as the property values go up, they capture the improvement in the property value to re-invest in that geographic area,” Royce said. 

“There’s about five to six areas (Local Development Finance Authority) can reinvest in to drive the economy and improve the area, and one of them is to fund an incubator.” 

The SmartZone GR Current sits in forms a sort of L-shape that runs west on Michigan Street and shoots north up Monroe Avenue. It was initially funded as a state initiative under former governor Jennifer Granholm as an economy driver, Royce said, and the strategy has since proven effective.

“We are an entity trying to drive growth in the SmartZone, a designated area that allows (those using it) to have access to certain instruments they normally wouldn’t be allowed to,” he said. 

“This helps drive improvements and, in essence, create jobs, either by working with companies in that SmartZone or by bringing companies into that SmartZone, and that’s really what we do.” 

Currently, six life science and technology startup clients are working with GR Current, five of which are housed in its headquarters. GR Current, which shares lab equipment and often student interns with GVSU, has six private office spaces, as well as three wet-lab spaces that are about 660 square feet each, totaling almost 20,000 square feet. 

GR Current offers three types of rent fees, Royce said. Its virtual program — essentially, access to everything but an office — is $95 per month. For a shared office, it’s $275 per month and for a whole office of 113 square feet, it’s $500 per month. The cost for wet lab space varies, he said, but averages about $20 per square foot. 

One of the entrepreneurs who operates within GR Current’s incubator is Barry Nowak, cofounder of Syzygy Biotech Solutions, a specialized protein development startup. Nowak has been with GR Current since 2010, when he showed up with nothing but “a good idea and a piece of chicken,” he said. 

Nowak’s first two customers were the University of Michigan and Van Andel Institute, he said. Through GR Current, he has grown to 150 customers that are primarily either university or research related and that make average purchases of $400. 

“I showed up here and was in business for $200 a month, which is unheard of. We had product within 120 days, and for most biotech firms it takes five years. All that’s because of GR Current.”

There are a lot of explanations for why an incubator like GR Current works well for life science and tech startups, Nowak said. Some of the vital reasons he chose it were the affordable rent, the availability of advanced scientific equipment, and the connection to the local talent pool of students and medical professionals on the Medical Mile.

“There’s no better place in Michigan to start a bio-tech company, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “We did detailed site selection against six different sites, including places like Tecumseh and Jackson, which would have written us a check for $1 million to locate there. We chose not to do that because the advantages here are so profound.”

The bio-life and technology startups that utilize GR Current face different entrepreneurial challenges than “typical” Grand Rapids startups, said Felip Ballesteros, GR Current marketing manager. These kinds of startups — many of which are led by older entrepreneurs with years of medical or biological experience — are particularly expensive and are looking at a three- to five-year window of making it or not making it, he said, meaning there’s a need for long-term investment, which heightens the risk factor. 

The tested faith of these entrepreneurs has, however, proven true, Ballesteros said, and that’s why what GR Current has established in Grand Rapids is working. 

“The team here understands the entrepreneurial mindset. I think that’s why we’re making so many connections in the community.”

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