A dash of mad science, courtesy of GR Current

Rapid Growth sits down with Jeff Royce and Felip Ballesteros of GR Current to get a handle on their creative, innovative and slightly wacky take on the traditional business incubator.
Got an idea for a West Michigan start-up business? You should probably give local business incubator GR Current a call. Or send them an e-mail. Or text them on their personal cell numbers, which they hand out to just about anyone who comes through their offices. Sort of like the Justice League or an entrepreneurial A-Team, they take their work home and they’re rarely off the clock.

Their specialty? They work with what they call “high-tech, high-growth” start-ups, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help you with your idea for a house-painting business, or a new type of microfiber cat sweater, or whatever else you’ve got turning in your head.

“People can call us 24/7,” says Jeff Royce, GR Current’s director. “We’re completely open to the community. We’ll never take a call and say, ‘Wow, that’s great… Too bad we can’t help you with it.’ We’ll say, ‘We can’t help you, but here’s what you need to do...’”

Royce took over at GR Current last year in December, taking the helm of an organization that, at the time, had no real direction. The board of GR Current’s predecessor, the life science business incubator West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative, or WMSTI (“It’s never good, from a marketing standpoint, when you have to make up a word so people can pronounce your acronym,” Royce notes), had decided that the incubator in its old form lacked energy and name recognition, and was going nowhere quickly.

So they gave Royce a blank canvas — nothing set in stone, and not even a name for the organization during this period — and they charged him with re-imagining the business incubator and using its connections with Grand Valley State University in a way that could create value for the community, attract the area’s most promising entrepreneurs and generate some excitement among clients and staff.

One of his first moves, after changing the name to GR Current with the help of a local marketing firm, was to expand the incubator beyond life sciences into a range of areas that fit the aforementioned “high-tech, high growth” mold: medical devices, IT software, advanced manufacturing, homeland security and so on.

Of course, expanding beyond the life science field, which is complex and technical enough in itself, into a whole host of high-tech disciplines, requires a staggering amount of technical resources and expertise. But Royce is the first to admit his team of six full-time employees can’t get a handle on every advanced technology that they come across.

Instead, GR Current is in the business of making connections to the right people and expanding their network of resources — constantly and aggressively. For every client they take through their full incubator process, there are dozens more where they only need to provide incremental help, or even just a connection to the right resource or funding opportunity.

“It’s impossible for us to know every technology out there,” says Royce. “It’s impossible for us to even try and do that. What our goal is, is meeting with people even when we’re not meeting with people. When we’re not having meetings, we’re still networking to build this space, so that when someone comes to us with a new technology, regardless of what stage they’re at, our number one goal is to identify what their next step is. And more often than not, it’s gonna be different than what they think it is.”

But besides just making GR Current more accessible and marketable than WMSTI, Royce has another mission with the new incubator: To install a social component into the incubator and get the public interested in the arcane, high-tech stuff their clients are working on. When they hosted their recent launch event on the rooftop of the UICA in June, they didn’t just throw a modest meet-and-greet. Instead, they reached out to create a guest list of over 500 local movers, shakers and creative individuals, borrowed Universal Mind’s iPad table for the evening, held prototype tech demonstrations and brought in high-definition cable cams to get aerial photography of the event (they wanted drones initially, but the local police department said no).

“Our goal is to introduce the public to the startup scene,” Royce says. “We get it that things resonate when you get your hands on them. It’s one thing to read about something or watch a video, but when you get your hands on it… By far the biggest success we got with our launch event, the intent was to get some name recognition, but really, the real benefit was all the people we invited there, all the casual, random encounters they had during the event.”

“We’re still getting e-mails,” he continues. “People are meeting customers and signing $200,000 contracts because of someone they randomly met, hit it off, struck up a relationship and now they’re working together. And at the end of the day, that’s our goal with a lot of these events: Just getting people together and having these sorts of random collisions. We’ll bring them together and see what happens.”

Next year, the organization plans to open up a second incubator location at 234 Division Street, where they’ll move most of their clients while leaving life science businesses in their old location at GVSU’s 301 Michigan Street building. They maintain an advanced wet lab space with over $2.5 million worth of equipment available to their clients at their GVSU location, and they have no plans to leave those resources behind. However, they’ll house most of their staff and throw events primarily at the new 234 Division space.

Royce says that GR Current also plans to gradually transition to 100 percent private funding over the next few years; currently, the organization is funded by tax increment financing revenue from the Medical Mile zone, along with a bit of money from state grants. They’re also on the verge of launching a new program called Xccelerator in collaboration with Start Garden, and they’re working on a project called Emerge, which is an attempt to develop an entrepreneurial “ecosystem” for resource tracking and sharing, plus they’ve committed to host 20 events by June of 2014, and… well, frankly, it’s a lot to keep track of. But the staff at GR Current knows they need to keep this frenetic pace if they want to create those “random collisions” they believe in.

“We reference this ‘Kool-Aid’ thing a lot around here,” says Felip Ballesteros, director of marketing and communications for GR Current. “It’s a funny expression to me, and everyone seems to love this idea of ‘drinking the Kool-Aid.' Well, I like to think of what we’re doing as changing the flavor of the Kool-Aid, just because, the nature of the conversations we’re having, on a cultural level, in terms of entrepreneurship and how we assist people, it has to come in a very dynamic form. It’s not a linear process at all.”

Which is to say, they’re a little all over the place and very busy. Jeff Royce knows the pace won’t slow down anytime soon, but that’s a fact of the startup scene and their business model. The next great entrepreneur, he says, is probably “out there in the weeds,” so that’s exactly where the GR Current team plans to work, eat and play as much as humanly possible.

“We’re working hours that, I mean, there’s not even… we’re basically working during the day and doing events at night, then starting the cycle over again,” he says. “But it’s fun working with a group that’s all on the same mission, they’re all passionate about it. It’s a job, but it doesn’t always feel like a job. We get to see a lot of cool stuff and work with a lot of interesting people.”

Steven Thomas Kent is a Michigan son who ran away to join the circus called Chicago for the better part of a decade. All grown up now and based in Grand Rapids, he can be stalked on Twitter @steventkent or reached at steven.t.kent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird 
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