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Start Garden partners with new accelerator, dives into the Internet of Things

Amanda Chocko, left, and Mike Morin.

Start Garden recently announced the Seamless Coalition and Accelerator, a partnership with Meijer, Steelcase and other notable area companies that will focus on Internet of Things startups. We explore what it means for the region -- and what the heck is the Internet of Things, anyway?
There’s a conversation that’s going on around you right now — even if you’re reading this at home, alone.
Your iPhone is talking with your FitBit, or maybe your Apple Watch if you’re an early adopter. Perhaps you’ve got one of those Nest thermostats, too, C-ing its way into what used to be an A-B conversation.

Even if you’re a low-tech, smartphone-only sort, you’re used to your device talking with websites as you’re loading pages, letting them figure out whether you’re viewing on a phone or laptop and showing you the appropriate version of the page. Soon, you can expect sensors in the environment to carry on the same type of chatter with your phone — adjusting your content not just to your display size but to your physical location as well.

All this conversation of connected objects is what tech types call the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Not only is IoT here already, but it’s only going to get more robust in the coming years — and a “startup within a startup” from Start Garden aims to make sure that West Michigan takes a position at the forefront of the fast-growing industry that’s building up around it.

Start Garden announced last month the formation of the new Seamless Coalition and Accelerator, which will bring Steelcase, Amway, Meijer, Spectrum Health, Priority Health, and French automotive parts manufacturer Faurecia (who maintain an R&D center in Holland, Mich.) to the table, in order to create collaborations and share resources with new startups that focus on the Internet of Things.

The Seamless Accelerator will involve a 12-week program, operating in two cycles per year, and will include 10 startups in each cycle. The startup companies, which can apply for consideration through the Seamless website, will not only receive access to resources and expertise from the major enterprise partners, but will also be able to work with 16 other vendor-partners and a network of over 50 mentors, including local business leaders, startup founders and investors, that Start Garden has tapped to work with the accelerator.

The first round of applications will close June 15, with Start Garden making announcements as to the first round of participating startups sometime in August.

Mike MorinAccording to Start Garden’s Mike Morin, the “seamless” in the name partially comes from the way that Internet-of-Things devices hope to create a smoother, more continuous existence for users, allowing them to carry all sorts of stored preferences and useful data between different contexts like work and home.

As one example, he mentions the typical experience of getting out of bed and setting the thermostat for your house, then getting into your car to go to work and setting the A/C, then getting to your office and setting the thermostat there again.

In theory, once the IoT era has really dawned, he says, your home thermostat, car computer and office thermostat can all communicate with each other, each notifying the other that you like things at a brisk 67 degrees Fahrenheit and attempting to make it so as you move through your various daily environments.

The unfolding scenarios for IoT are practically limitless: Your car puts out the word that you’re pulling into the driveway, so your security system unlocks the house and your TV puts the Tigers game on. Or perhaps you get a coupon pushed to your iPhone as the freezer tells the grocery store you just ate the last Eggo.

“Another great example is, I walk into a doctor’s office and fill out this great big form telling them everything about me,” Morin continues. “The reality is, there’s probably data points all over the place that could have answered that question for them, before I ever got there. But it’s a question of creating the framework for those pieces of information to come together. So again — talking about IoT, it’s not just the things, it’s the communication protocols, the aggregation of all that data.”

“So IoT companies aren’t just companies that make the things,” he says. “We’re interested in data companies, communication technology companies, anything that makes up that fabric that connects all this disparate stuff.”

Experts in the tech industry generally agree that, right now, the capacity for growth in the Internet of Things market is enormous. Although figures vary widely, one report last year from an IT research agency, the International Data Corporation, estimated that the IoT market would grow to $7.1 trillion by 2020, up from $1.9 trillion in 2013. Another 2014 report from PwC, while declining to name a figure, agreed that IoT would become “a multi-trillion dollar industry by 2020.”

With so much potential profit available, why are established companies looking to work with startups? Couldn’t they simply shut them out and carve a larger slice of pie for themselves? And likewise, couldn’t the startups try to surprise and disrupt the less-nimble corporations to grab a permanent foothold before the bigwigs notice?

According to Morin, who specializes in portfolio relations for Start Garden and Seamless, the Internet of Things revolution defies some of the classical antagonism between startups and big corporations, mainly because the skillset and framework required to create IoT devices lies somewhere in the middle of their respective strengths and weaknesses.

“I think it’s a necessity [for these companies],” he says. “If your startup is a social network that requires a bunch of servers, a case of Mountain Dew, and a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of Google AdWords, you can pull that off on your own. But the minute you start bringing physicality into it, and the need for service and distribution, and the billions of dollars worth of physical asset that’s here [in West Michigan], you’re not going to recreate that with venture capital.”

Meanwhile, the enterprises, Morin says, may see an opportunity and have the existing resources to come up with a solution, but might not have an easy way to incorporate it into their existing business model. In those cases, he says, a partnership with or acquisition of a startup may be the best way for them to capitalize on such an opportunity.

“So, no, I don’t think [startups and corporations] are more in love with each other than they ever were,” Morin says, “but necessity is the mother of invention, and they’re going to find a way to work together.”

The ability to put startups in touch with so many different established companies, each specializing in a different market, is what differentiates the Seamless Coalition from any other business accelerator out there, Morin says.

Amanda Chocko, who specializes in community relations for Start Garden and Seamless, adds that the partnership won’t be a typical hands-off sponsorship on the part of the big-name players. Each enterprise partner will work closely with the startups throughout the accelerator process, she says, providing a constant flow of resources, advice and oversight. She refers to Seamless as a sort of “neutral sandbox” to facilitate the large companies working constructively and closely with the young-gun startups.

“It’s not where the enterprises are just sponsoring us to help find them companies,” Chocko says. “They’re fully engaged in the process; they have a person, at least one from each organization, dedicated and that’s going to engage all-in with the accelerator, the program, and also the recruitment process and setting the expectations as to the outcomes.”

Besides creating collaborations between startups and established companies and brands, Morin says that the Internet of Things boom could also break down some of the geographical boundaries within the technology industry — possibly to the great advantage of West Michigan and similar regions.

Morin says that areas with a history and infrastructure in manufacturing and design stand to become invaluable as IoT brings software companies into collaboration with manufacturers in fields like appliances and automotive, and creates a demand for far more devices and sensors — part of a process Morin refers to as “physical stuff becoming cool again.”

“You know, the Midwest has struggled to recreate the technical infrastructure they have in Silicon Valley, and I think they’ll equally struggle to recreate what we have here,” he says. “But the number of ties we have with other really dynamic ecosystems, whether it’s in the Valley or Austin or Boston — geography is still an issue, but I feel the needle is moving, and that there will be more collaboration from both a capital and a tech standpoint.”

Although Start Garden is one of the most notable local names to double down on IoT, they’re far from the only ones who recognize the trend. SoftwareGR, for example, decided to focus their 2015 Great Lakes Software Excellence Conference (GLSEC) on an Internet of Things theme, and aimWest will devote a May 20 panel event, titled “Everything is Connected,” to IoT as well.

Mike Marsiglia, a managing partner at Atomic Object and the president of SoftwareGR, says that he and his colleagues decided to focus GLSEC 2015, which will feature keynote speakers from Microsoft and Seattle-based software company Chef among others, on IoT because they see it as potentially “the future of [the software profession.]”

The predicted explosion in IoT, he says, has to do with an increasing number of devices weaving their way into our lives, combined with a falling cost of computing technology that increasingly makes wearable and transportable technology feasible. As those technologies “fill in the gaps” in data, so to speak, between the time we actively spend on our computers and phones, the Internet of Things will increasingly become a part of our daily experience.

“For the first time people are wearing small hardware on their body to gather data and collect it for consumption,” he says. “10 years ago that wasn’t the reality — we had computers and that was it. But now we have the ability to make inexpensive hardware that can do something and measure something, and now we all have these microcomputers in our pockets that can work with that. So the time for this revolution really makes sense with all that in mind.”

Marsiglia points to fledgling technologies like the Amazon Echo, which is marketed as a “digital assistant” — sort of like a Siri, spun off into its own device — as part of the reason why so many major companies are so excited to jump headlong into the IoT market.

“Think about that from Amazon’s point of view,” Marsiglia says. “Amazon now has a device in your house that can learn from context who’s in your house, what are they asking about and what are they caring about. So if you think about how is Amazon positioned, then — ‘I have the Amazon Echo in your house, so here’s a Christmas list for everyone in your house and some things I can sell you based on that.’”

“It’s allowing companies to get a little more personal with people,” he continues. “I’m sure some people will be scared about that and some people will be excited, but it’s certainly happening.”

Marsiglia adds that he is a fan of the approach that Start Garden is taking with Seamless, and that he agrees that cooperation between established companies and startups may come to define the IoT market.

“I really like how they’re saying, ‘I’m going to bring in entrepreneurs who can do the innovative work, who can [then] plug into some of these more established companies with more established channels for sales; companies who really know how to market and sell product, but might struggle more on the innovation side,’” he says. “So I think it’s really great what they’ve put together. I think everyone wins.”

Mike Morin points out that West Michigan may have another distinct advantage over other regions as the IoT revolution rolls out. As he sees it, the Internet of Things isn’t really about the internet, or about things, but rather about people and their behavior. And in his experience, he says, the area has a robust population of human-centric, design-oriented thinkers — perhaps owing all the way back to our days as the furniture hub of the world.

“Where a lot of the rest of the world thinks of IoT as a bunch of little gadgets interacting, I think we talk about it more holistically [here], in terms of, how does it change the way we interact with our physical surroundings?” Morin says. “And we have a lot of companies here that do that now.”

“For once, we actually have a tailwind blowing in our direction, toward something that we do really well in West Michigan,” he adds. “It may not be these specific technologies, but whether you’re dealing with Steelcase, or Faurecia in automotive or Meijer in retail, these people have been integrating various forms of technology into their products for a long time.”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steven.t.kent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback. His stories are made possible by support from Emerge West Michigan.
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