Muskegon Business Incubator Takes Off


    MUSKEGON — As far as professional offices go, it’s far from luxurious or spacious.

    But it does have the basics a budding entrepreneur needs: a professional setting with low-priced rent, telephones and utilities, high-speed Internet connection, a cleaning service and a conference room down the hall that Laurie Stevens can use to meet with clients.

    While Stevens hopes to eventually move into larger quarters, she’s happy for now where she’s at — The Lakeshore Launch Pad, a new office center designed to house new technology-based firms that in time will populate Muskegon’s SmartZone high-tech business park.

    Without the space, Stevens believes that her company, Vesta Consultants LLC, would have had a much more difficult time getting off the ground.

    “I’d probably still be working out of the basement in my home, and it’s difficult to present a professional setting (to clients) in your home,” said Stevens, whose company is one of the first two technology firms to locate in The Lakeshore Launch Pad, a business incubator formed as part of the Muskegon Lakeshore SmartZone initiative.

    Joining Vesta Consultants, which offers computer training, e-business planning and application and database support to small businesses, is Next I.T., a new information technology solutions provider.

    The goal of The Lakeshore Launch Pad is to provide fledgling technology companies office space and support amenities at an affordable price and in a location close to organizations that are behind Muskegon’s Lakeshore SmartZone initiative. Doing so allows entrepreneurs to keep their start-up costs low and better control their fixed costs, so they can dedicate more time and resources to managing and building their business.

    “Our idea is to pool those resources and really get people off on the right foot,” said Todd Battle, executive director of Muskegon Area First.

    To the partners in Next I.T., having space in The Lakeshore Launch Pad has made a substantial difference in getting the business started.

    “It would be harder to be in business if it wasn’t for the incubator,” said Eric Ringelberg, a systems engineer and co-founder of the company. “It’s been a lot of help forming and accelerating the business in terms of growth in a nicer facility at a lesser cost.”

    Established as a not-for-profit corporation, The Lakeshore Launch Pad is housed downtown in the basement of the Hume Building, downstairs from the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, the economic development agency Muskegon Area First, and the local office of the Michigan Small Business Development Center.

    The center consists of 14 suites, each with enough office space to comfortably house two people, plus a shared conference room and a training room. Rent starts at $215 a month and includes utilities, a high-speed Internet service and other services.

    Two additional companies have inquired about locating in Launch Pad offices, said Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Larsen. With the launching this month of a marketing effort to promote the center, the chamber and other organizations expect additional companies to come forward and apply for space, Larsen said.

    Beyond the office space and support amenities, organizers of The Lakeshore Launch Pad are working to set up a network of business executives who can provide legal and financial advice to business owners who locate there, as well as internship programs with the local campus of Baker College and Muskegon Community College. A technology business counselor from the Small Business Development Center is available every Friday to work with business owners.

    “We want to incubate some companies in this town,” said Bill Lowry, chairman of The Lakeshore Launch Pad’s board of directors.

    Partners in The Lakeshore Launch Pad include the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, Muskegon Area First, Grand Valley State University, the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, Muskegon Community College, Baker College and the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

    Funding for The Lakeshore Launch Pad comes from a $25,000 grant from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, funneled through the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, and support from sponsoring organizations. Muskegon Community College, for instance, donated furnishings for the offices.

    Lowry likens formation of The Lakeshore Launch Pad to efforts by lumber baron Charles Hackley and other business leaders more than 100 years ago, in an era when the lumber and timber industries were beginning to wane, to create a fund to recruit new businesses to Muskegon in order to diversify the local economy.

    “They saw the need to plant seeds for the economy,” Lowry said. “This is, a century later, exactly the same thing.”

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