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Collective Idea expands Holland, Michigan office, adds jobs

Collective Idea, the Holland, Michigan software design and development firm announced its office expansion with a grand opening celebration in mid-June, showcasing its modern, high-tech workplace in the heart of downtown Holland at 44 E. 8th St.

Daniel Morrison, CEO, says the firm’s office space is almost 4,400 square feet, which is double the previous space and adds more functionality. “The biggest addition is more breakout space,” he says. “We’ve added three small conference rooms for one to four people to meet or have video calls, phone booths for private conversations, and a second large conference room. Our main workspace is an open plan, so the addition of more quiet spaces was a design goal. We also have more open space to spread out during the day.”

The expanding space is needed to accommodate the growth. “In the last six months, we’ve brought on two junior software developers, one senior software developer, one designer, one marketer, and two interns.  We’ll likely be growing the team by one or two more people before the end of the year. Depending on the need, we may add more.”
 
“We’re always on the lookout for good people, even when we can’t hire them,” Morrison continues. “We also don’t limit ourselves to the local market. We currently have four employees in other states, and we’ll grow that segment.”

Like many local companies in the tech sector, recruiting and retaining talent remains a priority in order to stay competitive. Morrison says his firm takes a very employee- and family-centric approach to creating a corporate culture. “We work very hard to treat our people well and empower them,” he says. “We keep salaries competitive and have a great and growing benefits package that takes great care of them and their families. For example, our health insurance plan currently has more of our employees’ children on it than it does our actual employees. We focus not on silly perks, but on cultivating a good work/life balance. We do all of this because we want to build a company that will be around longer than any of us.”

‘A rising tide lifts all ships’ is a perfect adage for Morrison’s perspective on the importance of growing the technology sector in the region. “We have a real opportunity to give West Michigan a national reputation as a tech hub,” he says. “There are a lot of talented people and companies here already doing amazing things, but we just need to be better at talking about it to the wider world. As a great place to live, we’ll be able to attract and retain a lot of people to this area. There is such a great entrepreneurial spirit in West Michigan, and if we keep that momentum going, we’ll show that tech hubs aren’t just on the east or west coast.”

To learn more about Collective Idea, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

TechStars Startup Weekend: Unplug and unwind with fellow entrepreneurs

“Pitching ideas and pitching tents” is the unofficial mantra of the very unique and original “unplugged” TechStars Startup Weekend at the future site of Camp BluSky on Hamlin Lake, just north of Ludington, Michigan, from July 29-31.

Startup weekends have been a staple of the West Michigan entrepreneurial community since Aaron Schaap and Mike Boyink brought the concept to Grand Rapids from Seattle, Washington seven years ago. Typically, the 54-hour idea-pitching, business-developing, and team-building hackathon is held in early January.

However, Tim Murphy, lead organizer, had a different idea for 2016: design an event for the summer for which participants camp out in a beautiful setting and get inspired by nature. “Let’s get entrepreneurs to unplug from the day-to-day environment and see what happens,” he says.

The event will be structured like all startup weekends, which are held around the world throughout the year. Participants register online and then show up to pitch their ideas on Friday night. The crowd votes for the best 10 to 15 ideas and teams and proceed to self-select based on personal interest and skills (design, marketing, software development, etc.). For the remainder of the weekend, the teams work together to validate the idea and create some type of prototype, which is then presented back to the group on Sunday. One of the big difference with the “unplugged” weekend is that instead of teams retreating to conference rooms to work on the idea, the participants can check out a pontoon, meet around a campfire or chill out and work on the shores of Hamlin Lake.

Murphy, who is founder of Airdrop Gaming (a Start Garden funded venture) and a faculty member within the design department at Kendall, says that although the event is unplugged, there will be Wi-Fi available so teams can test their applications and conduct market research. But, other than that, it is very rustic, with everyone pitching tents and enjoying group meals over the weekend.

Besides expanding the entrepreneurial community beyond Grand Rapids, Murphy says the weekend will also be a chance to showcase Camp BluSky, his concept for a year-round innovation and design camp retreat, which he plans to launch within the confines the property of the 100-year-old Camp Douglas Smith.

Murphy says there is room for 150 people to participate in the event, and registration is still open. He says everyone will drive up and meet in a specified location in Ludington and then will be bussed to the Hamlin Lake site.

Registration is $75 for students and $100 for everyone else. This includes all meals, snacks and beverages throughout the weekend,

To learn more about the event, you can visit the site here. To learn more about Murphy’s concept for Camp BlueSky, you can check out more information here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

Grand Rapids Garage Bar & Grill is taking it to the streets

The popular North Monroe Garage Bar & Grill is bringing some serious fun to Grand Rapids this summer as it hosts weekly Wednesday night block parties through August 31. The shindigs will be held in front of the venue, located at 819 Ottawa Ave., from 6-10 pm each week.

Like its 2015 inaugural year, the parties not only bring music and fun to the ascending North Monroe light industrial neighborhood, but also have a charitable component with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.  According to founder Kevin Farhat, they have raised more than $7,300 through the block parties and other charitable events over the last two years. Farhat says the support for veterans is a legacy from the previous owner of Teasers, the previous bar where Garage is now located.

Farhat says the block parties are bigger and better this year. “We have bigger acts, a bigger stage (The Who could play on it), and more people. We are blessed to be able to put these on,” he says.  Farhat adds the parties get a great deal of support from classic car and motorcycle enthusiasts, which adds to the existing  North Monroe vibe that he describes as “free spirited” and “easily accessible.” (Parking is always free.)

The block parties are not the only thing happening at the Garage Bar & Grill. Farhat says they recently received permission to install a parklet in front the bar. “It is something I have seen in other parts of the city. It really improves the curb appeal. It’s very attractive, and it livens things up.  It’s also the first tables to fill up.”  Also with the addition of 20 seats, Farhat says business is up 20 percent this year.

Working with his partners  from Third Coast Development, Farhat says that the Garage Bar & Grill brand has an excellent opportunity to grow, either through opening other locations or franchising.  He says the business currently employs 24 people.

For more information about Garage Bar & Grill,including their block parties, you can visit their website here or Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Business is booming at JR Automation: Company expands, adds jobs

Bryan Jones, CEO of JR Automation Technologies,  sums it up succinctly: “We work in cool industries on cool projects. It is unlike what anyone is doing in the world.”

The Holland-based JR Automation Technologies is a global leader in custom automation solutions for a variety of industries, including automotive, aerospace, medical device, pharmaceutical, food processing, construction, and more. The company which was founded in 1980, has been on a high growth trajectory since 2009 and has recently announced their intention to expand operations in Holland by investing $5.6 million, which will  create 250 new jobs in the area over the course of the project.

Jones says an improving economy, advances in technology and JR Automation’s culture and team environment have played key roles in the firm’s growth. “An expanding economy certainly has helped our business, but our success is much bigger than that,” he says. “Changing and improving technology is making it possible to do more. Process developments are changing the way that we build cars, airplanes, and any number of everyday products.  All of these developments generally need intelligent, intuitive systems to be viable.”

The new jobs that are being created through their recent expansion will be filled by both new graduates and seasoned veterans. “We are looking to hire individuals ranging in experience: new college grads to seasoned professionals in a variety of disciplines and skill sets. Mechanical, electrical and process engineers, controls engineers, software engineers, project managers, machine builders, machinist, fabricators, service technicians. JR is a very technically diverse team, and we will continue to add in all areas,” says Jones.

Despite the competition for this type of talent, Jones is very optimistic that his company offers an interesting opportunities for job seekers. “JR is unique in that we bring so many different talent sets together in a respectful, enabling work environment for the purpose of solving problems and building solutions that are bigger than what any one discipline or talent set could ever accomplish on their own,” he says. “We get to see the results of our efforts on a daily basis in the construction and run-off of systems that can be hundreds of feet long and cost multiple millions of dollars.”

Jones says  the technology being developed and used is industry leading. “It’s cool stuff,” he says. “We build things that move and make and manufacture and that are unlike anything else in the world. What could be more fun than that to someone who gets into building things and making things work? And while all that is happening, there is a true team atmosphere supporting one another and making the work days enjoyable.”

Several economic development organizations have played a role in JR Automation’s recent expansion, including Lakeshore Advantage, Holland Charter Township and the MEDC.
 
Those interested in employment at JR Automation should visit http://www.jrauto.com/careers.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

The sweet life: Laham family pursues the American Dream with Chocolates by Grimaldi

There’s no doubt about it: Steve and Molli Laham are living the sweet life.

Literally.

The husband and wife duo, both of whom were born and raised in Grand Rapids, not long ago had been living in Indiatlantic, Florida, a small beach town perched on Florida’s east coast, with their two sons when the idea hit: Why not return to their home state and open a family run chocolate shop?

It was an idea born from visiting their friends’ chocolate store in Florida (“where everything was amazing!” Molli exclaims), and one that came naturally to the Lahams, who had owned and operated businesses in Grand Rapids for years prior to heading south.

“We wanted to show our sons how to start a business, run a business, grow a business,” says Molli, who owned a dental lab for 15 years in Grand Rapids.

Plus, moving back to Michigan was a no-brainer for the couple, with Steve citing “the values that are so core to the Midwest and West Michigan” being a major draw for their family of four.

“We’re Grand Rapidians,” says Steve, who owned an ATV, snowmobile, personal watercraft, and boat business in Grand Rapids for 19 years before going to work for a French multinational company in a senior level capacity for a decade and a half. “When we do a tour, we say, ‘We’re smitten with the mitten.’”

So, Molli and Steve and their two sons, Nick and Zach, packed up and hit the road, returning to the place they always called home: West Michigan. In 2012, the family opened Chocolates by Grimaldi in Grand Haven, and, with everything from tours of its chocolate factory to its chocolate-covered potato chips and truffles that seem to fly off the shelves, the space has flourished. Now, four years after its inception, the chocolatier continues to do what it does best: whip up caramels, hand-rolled truffles, chocolate-covered fruits hailing from local farms, and more — plus it’s gearing up to grow the business, including offering more events in the shop that’s located in a former roller rink at 219 N. 7th Street.

“We love creating recipes for chocolate confections and sharing them with everyone who comes into our shop,” Molli says. “Seeing the smiles and contentment on our customers’ faces while they savor our chocolate creations is priceless.”

Using a 30-foot 1950s enrober (a machine that coats the candies in chocolate and, despite being more than 60 years old, looks impressively futuristic), the business frequently uses local ingredients from places like the Ferris Nut Company, Crossroads Blueberry Farm, Gordon Foods, Better Made Potato Chips, and more to create their products that they proudly describe as using no artificial ingredients, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup.

This emphasis on using local ingredients is something that the Lahams stress is celebrated by their customers.

We have so many of the same people come in on a weekly basis; I think a lot of it has to do with supporting local,” Molli says. “When you can find a place that supports the local growers, that’s something people want to support. Michigan has such amazing crops, from strawberries to blueberries to cherries; we have great ingredients that are grown locally.”

Part of this focus on local is a natural fit for the Lahams, who say building relationships with the community has been one of their ultimate priorities, which can also be seen in the way they interact with customers.

“[West Michigan’s] more relaxed pace and outdoorsy activities allows you time to be able to talk, and when that happens, you start to create relationships,” Steve says.

Already, numerous community groups from area schools and religious organizations take advantage of the space, going on the tour that the Lahams offer of the chocolate factory, and the owners say they plan on expanding how they offer the space to the public. “We’d like to do events like chocolate-making classes or wine and chocolates,” says Steve, who adds they also hope to expand by growing their gifts for sale. “If you think about the perfect gift, chocolate is pretty darn close to perfect,” he says.

No matter how the business grows, there’s one thing the Lahams say they know will remain constant: their love for chocolate.

“It’s surprising you never get tired of chocolate,” Molli laughs. “You think it will just become part of your day and not be a novelty for you, but that’s not the case. Everyone who works here enjoys coming to work because it’s a fun product.”

To learn more about Chocolates by Grimaldi, you can visit the website here or check out their Facebook page here. You can also find their products locally at their factory at 219 North 7th St. in Grand Haven, or at Crossroad Blueberry Farm and the Sweet Tooth in Rockford. Those interested in taking a tour ($4 per person) should schedule it in advance by calling 616-935-7740.

Rockford software firm's construction app named one of the year's best

A Rockford-based software company, JobFLEX, has been recognized by TSheets for developing one of the top 10 construction apps of 2016.
 
The app, designed for the construction industry and sales professionals to do on-­site estimates by giving easy access to material lists and pricing, even without Wi-Fi, was named the “best app for estimates and bids.”
 
Kim Phillipi, founder and CEO, says the construction industry has lagged behind using technology, especially in the field. The company’s new app focuses on speeding up the estimating process. “The frustrations were the ability to deliver estimates in a timely manner,” he says. “Consumers are more demanding and expect everything faster and to be delivered online and over their phone or tablets.”
 
Philipi says that, with his app, estimates can easily be delivered within 24 hours. He says in the past, this might have taken a month or more.
 
JobFLEX, which was founded in 2009, has a 12-person team and is currently looking to add more developers to its staff. Besides designing software, the company also has a construction division, Greenfit Homes.
 
Since launching in beta last year, the the app has had more than 3,000 downloads, routinely lands on "best of lists" and is being used by more than 400 contractors.
 
To learn more about JobFLEX, you can view their website here.

And to learn more about why JobFLEX was chosen for the award, visit the Construction App Awards website.
 
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

The scootin' life: West Michigan-based Micro Kickboard brings fun to city commutes

Anyone with kids knows that scooters are really cool and a whole lot of fun. Less known, however, is that scooters are increasingly not just for kids. In fact, they are for the whole family and are rapidly finding a growing niche for adult commuters in urban markets.

Just ask Julie Hawksworth, president of Micro Kickboard, the U.S. distributor of Micro, a growing business located 5090 Kendrick Ct SE, Grand Rapids.

From Hawksworth’s perspective, scooters are the perfect mode of transit for urban living. They can connect the last mile of a commute, from a  bus or a train, to the office that is about twice as fast as walking and multiple times more fun.
 
“We first discovered the Micro brand while living  in 2003,” she says. “Walking our daughter to  school, we spotted a commuter on a scooter and fell in love (with the scooter). At first glance, we could see the design and quality were exceptional, and that day we ordered the first of what would become many Micros for our family. We immediately loved that it was fuel-free, foldable, and incredibly smooth-gliding. We also loved how it turned our 20-minute walk to school into a 10-minute scoot. Riding our Micros also was fun; we rode to restaurants, to school and to the park.”

After living in the United Kingdom, Hawksworth and her husband, Geoff, had the opportunity to move to Michigan, and they felt there was an opportunity to not only share their love of scooters with the U.S. market, but to build a solid business.
 
“In 2007, events conspired to take us from the U.K. to the U.S., where the Micro brand was in transition. With the help of Micro HQ in Switzerland and our friends from Micro UK, we started Micro Kickboard to distribute Micro products in the USA, where the quality of Micro's design and manufacture was already taking scooting to a new level, for adults as well as children,” she says. “As the official U.S. distributor for Micro, we make the products available via our website (microkickboard.com) and via a variety of specialty stores across the U.S., including lifestyle, baby, sporting, bike, travel, and toy. You also can find Micro at a handful of museum shops, most recently at the [Museum of Modern Art in New York].“

Business is definitely on the upswing, especially with the adult scooter market. “Three to four years ago, people would laugh about adults using scooters, but it is now much more normalized. The quality is exceptionally high, and it feels like an adult activity,” says Hawksworth.

To support the growth, Micro Kickboard has several job openings.  The 15-person firm is looking to add three new positions: web developer (experience with e-commerce preferred), business development (researching new markets and urban transport trends) and order processing/sales support.

Hawksworth says working at her company will be fun, creative and collaborative. “As Micro's family in the U.S., our team here in Grand Rapids is united by a passion for scooting the great outdoors,” she says. “When we founded Micro Kickboard, we made it our goal to work to be as good as the products. Given the almost non-stop innovation coming out of Switzerland, it is a continual challenge. We try to improve each and every day, which makes the work fun and the fun work.”

You can learn more about Micro Kickboard here. 

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Virtual reality therapy: How one Grand Rapids center is changing the way we treat mental health

The canyon before me is expansive, with dramatic red and orange cliffs that continue for as far as the eye can see. Perched on a narrow strip of rock, I glance over the edge of the platform upon which I stand and immediately look back up. There’s no doubt about it: that’s a long, terrifying decline.

Before I get too queasy, I take off the large, black glasses strapped to my head and give a laugh of relief: I am in an office. And there are no cliffs.

The canyon I had seen is part of what’s known as a “virtual reality exposure system” at the VR Therapy and Counseling Center at 1618 Leonard St. NE in Grand Rapids, and that specific scene was used to help a client who had a fear of heights and was planning on going on a canyon hike with his wife. While being monitored by a therapist, the client immersed himself in a scene of which he was terrified, again and again traversing the narrow cliffs of the canyon until he eventually overcame his fear of heights.

“We use it with phobias a lot,” VR Therapy and Counseling Center owner and psychotherapist Thomas Overly says of the clinic’s virtual reality setup. “We worked with the guy who came in with the extreme fear of height; we’ve treated people for anxiety, PTSD. We have people come in, we interview them and we customize the [virtual reality] program to meet their needs.”

Since January 2015, when Overly launched the business that was first born as a research project for his graduate program at Grand Valley State University, he, another therapist and two computer programmers have worked to offer virtual reality therapy to everyone from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to businessmen and women with social anxiety, and individuals suffering from depression and eating disorders, among others.

For each client, Overly, who was a computer programmer before becoming a therapist, creates the virtual reality program they’ll use for their hour-long sessions, which, while they use a new technology, are typically covered by insurance because they use a well-known form of treatment known as exposure therapy. In other words: a client repeatedly faces their fear, in a safe environment, until it no longer plays a debilitating role in their life. Except here, instead of talking through their fear, as would happen in traditional exposure therapy, individuals are able to tackle their anxieties, phobias and more in a far more realistic environment, all while their heart rate is monitored by a therapist to ensure they don’t become dangerously anxious. Once they engage in the virtual reality program, they then will spend their remaining time talking about it with a therapist, after which the programmers can tweak the setup so it coincides with what the client needs as they progress and heal.

“A lot of studies were done with veterans and soldiers” that have shown the efficacy of virtual reality therapy, Overly says. “Guys don’t always like sitting down and talking about their feelings. This lets them work through it using a hands-on approach. They get to actually confront their fears.”

Now, in addition to the current system, the center is poised to launch another virtual reality program called a “behavioral rehearsal system,” which will use virtual reality and facial and full-body motion tracking to allow the therapists to interact with clients by controlling characters with the virtual environments the programmers create for them. Translation: the therapists can become any character necessary to help the client.

“I can play every role with them: I can be a little girl, an old man, any race,” Overly says.

The center extrapolates on this, writing that, for instance, “if a teen is having difficulty in school settings, we will be able to place him or her in a virtual school setting where he or she will be able to learn more effective interpersonal skills, with our therapists taking on the roles of other children, teachers, etc. The system will use voice modulation, along with motion tracking, in such a way that any therapist will be able to control any character within the simulation in real time, mapping all movement and communication in a way that matches the specific character being controlled.

“For instance, if a female teenager were having difficulties interacting with her peers, our therapists will be able to take on the role of any other teenagers in the simulation, regardless of age, sex and physical characteristics,” the center continues.

While all of this work being done by the center has not always been easy (the up-to-date technology isn’t cheap, and Overly has had to invest much of his own money into the business, for example), but it is beginning to pay off. The center’s available therapy sessions are routinely filled, with their days often including 12 hours of clients, and this kind of cutting edge treatment has caught the eye of business innovation experts. The center was recently named one of six grand prize winners in a national competition aimed at startups, the Comcast Business’ Innovations 4 Entrepreneurs contest. As a part of this contest, VR won $30,000 and a trip to the Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia in August, when Overly will meet with a series of experts on finance, business planning, operations and technology, growth strategy, and marketing.

“This is huge for us,” Overly says of the award. “We get to upgrade our technology, and we want to get this technology into other people’s hands. We want to train them and help them use this.”

For more information about VR Therapy and Counseling Center, you can visit its website here.

Photos courtesy of VR Therapy and Counseling Center

Grand Rapids' Varnum law firm dedicates second $1 million in free legal services to entrepreneurs

When the employees of Varnum, a 128-year-old law firm in Grand Rapids, first began considering how they could support a still floundering economy five years ago, they quickly came to a conclusion: their attorneys would offer free legal services to small businesses that needed the help. And they would do that to the tune of $1 million.

So, for the past half decade, Varnum has done just that with its MiSpringboard program, providing the free legal services to 220 small companies and entrepreneurs across the state, including 24 in Grand Rapids, 33 in Detroit, 33 in Ann Arbor, and 10 in Kalamazoo, among others. In Grand Rapids, for example, OXX Products and The Gluten Free Bar, among others, have worked with the law firm.

"When we started the program, there was no data to suggest how well used it would be and no clear pathway to connect with the entrepreneurs who might make use of it," Varnum Chairman Dave Khorey says. "We just knew that despite the downturn in the economy, the startup community seemed to be expanding. We decided to help by providing some of the legal services associated with starting a business."

As the law firm witnessed the program playing a crucial role in growing Michigan as a hub for entrepreneurship, including providing major support for businesses owned by immigrants and people of color, attorneys wanted to continue it, and Varnum recently announced it will again provide $1 million in free legal services to small businesses over the next five years.

“We see startups willing to stay in Grand Rapids and make it their home, as opposed to go to an area that’s labeled as entrepreneur friendly, like Austin or Silicon Valley,” Varnum attorney Luis Avila says. “Grand Rapids is getting that reputation. People are staying here and deciding to make Grand Rapids their business’s home. This is the kind of stuff that, when we first launched the program, we could only dream of.”

The attorneys provide a wide range of services, from help with ownership structure to contract writing and intellectual property work, and more. Over the years, Avila says Varnum has noticed a definite trend: an increasing number of high tech businesses are seeking their help.

“As the entrepreneurial system has changed in West Michigan, so has the client demographic that’s approached us,” Avila says. “We’re getting a lot more high tech entrepreneurs and a lot more sophisticated entrepreneurs.”

Varnum attorney Matt Bower stresses the role emerging technology has played as a driving force in the exponential growth in Michigan’s startup industry.

"The growth in startup activity started with the tech community coming together in the form of meetups and co-working spaces to talk about what was going on and share ideas and resources," Bower says. "Then there was a corresponding rise of early stage investors in the state, closely followed by the state's own investment in startups through grants and enhanced SmartZones. When you have a strong community, funding sources and support of the state, the entrepreneurs respond."

Still, if you own a business that’s not high tech, don’t be dissuaded from reaching out for help, Avila stresses.

“We opened to this up to anyone; it doesn’t matter if you’re a dog walking service, or you’re the next high-tech Google,” says Varnum attorney Luis Avila. “As long as you have a business plan together and a solid idea, come to us and we’ll help you.”

As Varnum’s MiSpringboard program grew, they began collaborating with numerous community partners along the way, including GR Current and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, for which Avila serves as the president. Such partnerships, Avila says, have been crucial to being able to access business owners from throughout the community.

For example, last month, the Hispanic Chamber had its first ever business pitch competition, during which 20 companies came and pitched ideas in an attempt to win cash prizes through the chamber. As part of this, Varnum offerd the top five finalists a “guaranteed set of legal services through the MiSpringboard program,” Avila says.

“Through the Hispanic Chamber, we’re saying, ‘We want to be able to help you,’” Avila says of minority-owned businesses.

Over the next five years, Varnum attorneys are hoping their MiSpringboard prgram will prompt other organizations to follow in their foosteps.

“I hope this program inspires other organizations, whether they’re banks or service providers or whatever they may be, to consider an entrepreneur-friendly route, to say, ‘We want you, entreprenerus,  here in the long run. You’re better for our city, for our economy,’” Avila says, pointing out that this kind of community effort will draw additional dollars to the city and state.

“Venture capitalists are starting to take note of Grand Rapids, and they’re taking notice that this is a community-wide effort,” Avila says. “The more organizations that can do this, the more venture capitalists are willing to invest their money.”

To inquire further about the free legal services, call Varnum at 616-336-6000. For further information about the program, you can also visit the MiSpringboard website here.

“The biggest thing we want people to know is this is available to them,” Avila says. “Come talk to us; let’s see what works for you. The money is there, come and give us a call and take advantage of this.”

Cooking up dreams: Small business owners find space to flourish at Downtown Market incubator kitchen

As physicians, Monica Randles and Andrew Maternowski have a deep understanding of what it means to be healthy  — and the critical role food plays in your well-being. Longtime locavores who would regularly support area farms, the couple realized, after they and their two children became vegetarians, that while they could find plenty of healthy, West Michigan-grown produce, they couldn’t find the same for locally made substitute meats.

“We started looking at alternative meat options for vegetarian/vegan eating, and it became obvious to us there weren’t really super healthy options,” Randles says. “There were a lot of chemicals or processed products. We wanted to see what we could make for ourselves that are healthy and delicious, and we ended up making vegan sausages using walnuts, hazelnuts, brown rice, and quinoa. Any sausage is really a vehicle for seasoning, so we could have a hot Italian sausage, a breakfast sausage, which are super healthy and very flavorful.”

The couple started working on their recipe around 2010, and in July 2014 they founded Nutcase Vegan Meats, at which time they knew they needed a commercial kitchen to continue making their line of sausages. A friend recommended connecting with the Downtown Market’s incubator kitchen, which provides space, cooking and packaging equipment, and business development assistance for food start-ups and entrepreneurs.

“They really helped us,” Randles says of the kitchen, which now houses 21 businesses, ranging from Bloom Ferments, which makes kombucha drinks, and coffee company Prospectors Cold Brew to D’Arts Donuts and soul food spot Southern Smoke. “They’ve been really critical with education and mentoring for the business. We didn’t know what to do in terms of hiring employees or looking for additional staff and support and licensing. They’ve been a big source of information.”

It’s those kind of reviews that Whitney Lubbers, who manages the incubator kitchen, is thrilled to hear. After all, she says, in a city awash with an entrepreneurial spirit, it’s crucial that small businesses owners with limited funds are able to access space to flourish.

“A place like this is so important,” Lubbers says as she sits in her office overlooking the kitchen, an expansive sea of stainless steel equipment that’s used practically around the clock by businesses for everything from frying donuts to slapping labels on bottles. “If they’re not successful here, in the kitchen, they’re not losing everything they have" because they don’t have to invest in an often incredibly expensive brick and mortar site.

One of the few incubator kitchens in West Michigan, the space at the Downtown Market allows businesses to work with Lubbers to make sure they have a viable business plan, and they have immediate access to the Michigan Small Business Development Center, which helps owners on a range of topics, including the county and state licensing processes.

“They’ll really walk you through the process; you can take the ServSafe course so you understand food handling and regulation,” says Randles, whose business now sells their vegan sausages at about a dozen places throughout the state, including at spots like Kingma’s Market, Nourish Organic Market, and Horrocks Market in Grand Rapids. “The incubator kitchen helps you understand the process well prior to having a state inspection. We can’t say enough good things about the incubator kitchen; we wouldn’t be where we are now without them.”

Many of those who go to the incubator kitchen do so based on recommendations, as Randles did, and the space has grown from housing six businesses when the Downtown Market first opened in the summer of 2013 to the current 21 businesses. For Lubbers, that’s indicative of  a need for shared commercial space for entrepreneurs. The kitchen has five distinct areas: pastry, packaging, catering, production, and prep, and the hourly rates to use these spaces vary on a tiered system, depending on what equipment one needs to access and financial need (there are three choices: market rate, support rate and scholarship rate). Plus, the market offers owners access during “non-peak hours” (10pm-6am), which also makes the price drop.

“It was important to us to offer this as soon as the Market opened, to have something that would support small businesses in the city,” Lubbers says. “We saw a need to foster this entrepreneurship; we’re able to accommodate a lot here.”

Of the businesses that have worked out of the kitchen, one, Cultured Love, has “graduated,” or grown out of the space, and two others, Bloom Ferments and Prospectors, are soon poised to leave. While at the incubator kitchen, Prospectors inked a deal with Meijer that places their product in more than 200 stores throughout Michigan and the Midwest.

Sydney Dennison, who runs Masen James Bakery with her mother, Clarice Dennison, and works out of the incubator kitchen, says the communal space has given them a chance to live out a dream.

“My mom has always had a passion for baking,” Dennison says. “For her whole life, people would say, ‘Oh, you won’t make any money that way,’ and so she went and got her Master’s degree in business leadership and works at a hospital now. But every since I was young, I knew she had a talent for baking, and I wanted her to do what she loves. You only have one life; you may as well do what you want. So, I said, ‘Show me how to bake; show me how to do this.”

Dennison notes that it’s not just having the space itself that helps, but that owners have a chance to share words of wisdom with other entrepreneurs.

“It’s a great way to connect,” she says. “We’re sharing the kitchen with a ton of different businesses, and people do collaborations with other businesses all the time. We’ve done things with Prospectors. We feed off of each other; we give each other great exposure.”

For more information about the incubator kitchen, visit its website here.

Organic wheat farm expands offerings after competing in Mason County business plan contest

Reality TV shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” have demonstrated that, for participants, it is not always about winning but more about what you do with the experience.

It is a very similar story for participants in last year’s inaugural $50,000 Momentum Business Plan Competition in Mason County, Mich.

In the 2015 competition, the winner was Andy Thomas of Starving Artist Brewing, but another participant and top five finisher has taken full advantage of the experience to move his business forward.

Stuart Family Organics, an organic wheat farm and bakery, is preparing to take the business to a new level. Jim Stuart, CEO, says the competition was very helpful in fine-tuning his business model. “Our organic wheat is a good product,” he says. “Participating in the Momentum Business Plan Competition  helped us ask ourselves, ‘What more can we do,’ and it showed folks we were serious.”

The business had up to that point sold baked goods, such as cookies and muffins, through local farmers’ markets. They also had a little pop-up business, The Stoop, in Venice Beach, Calif. (which was started and run by a family member), but ever since the competition Stuart says he is moving forward on other opportunities. “One fellow in Ludington approached us about renting a building and modifying it for our needs,” he says.

Stuart says they are in the process of opening a storefront at 215 S. James St. in downtown Ludington (tentatively to be named The Stoop, like the Venice Beach store) this fall, which will sell organic baked goods. Longer term it will also include an organic processing facility so the business can ship their products around the world with a USDA organic label and potentially help other food entrepreneurs move their products beyond what the Cottage Food Laws allow in Michigan.
 
Besides the expansion to a brick and mortar site in Ludington, Stuart says he is a top 10 finalist for the Archer Daniels Midland Food Innovation Challenge, for which they are developing a cookie using their wheat -- another opportunity related to his participation in the business plan competition.

The 2016 Momentum Business plan competition is underway with initial applications and plans due July 31 at www.momentumstartup.org (also includes details of rules and regulations). All West Michigan entrepreneurs are encouraged to apply for this contest.

For more information about Stuart Family Organics visit their Facebook page or stuartfamilyorganics.com.

By John Rumery, Jobs News and Innovation Editor

Grand Rapids entrepreneur launches ride-sharing venture

SteadyFare is a new ride-sharing application developed by local entrepreneur and business owner James Matthews. After a month-long “soft ­launch,” SteadyFare was announced to West Michigan with a massive, local advertising campaign, including billboards throughout the city and advertising through multiple online platforms such as Pandora.
 
SteadyFare competes in the exact same space as ride­-share behemoths like Uber and Lyft, a pretty daunting task -- unless, of course, you have a plan, and you have significant differentiators.
 
“How does a small grocery store compete against Wal­Mart?” Matthews says when asked how he plans to compete in the marketplace. “You can be small and be successful.”
 
From a driver’s perspective, he says SteadyFare provides a better rates, the ability to accept and keep tips and, maybe most importantly, a personal touch. “Drivers seem to enjoy that we actually talk to them,” he says. “They have probably never spoken to anyone at Uber.” Matthews notes they also have training programs and opportunities for exceptional drivers to create a stronger and more profitable business. “Our drivers will have a person to help them build a business. Real people in the community.”
 
For the riding experience, Matthews says using his application will be similar to his competitors but that there will be no surge pricing, and his drivers will have gone through a more extensive background check,providing a higher level of safety and security.
 
Behind the launch, Matthews has received funding from an angel investor and has a team of developers working on the app. The success of SteadyFare in Grand Rapids and future rounds of investment will determine the next 2­3 markets. “We are actively looking at other cities, similar to Grand Rapids, but will play it year­-to-­year.”
 
To learn more about SteadyFare, you can visit their website here.
 
By John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Japanese Animation, Film & Art eXpo makes move to downtown Grand Rapids

And now for something completely different.

The Japanese Animation, Film & Art eXpo (JAFAX), is set to open at its new event location, the DeVos Place Convention Center and The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel on June 24-26.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the convention, which celebrates attendees dressed in costumes of popular Japanese animation characters, Japanese cultural seminars, and local artists who will exhibit at booths throughout the weekend.

JAFAX was last held in 2014 on the campus of Grand Valley State University. After drawing a crowd of more than 5,000 people during the course of the weekend event, GVSU could no longer host the skyrocketing number of attendees.
 
Rae Morris, the promotions director, says the event has come a long way.
 
“This is our 20th anniversary,” Morris says. “We started at Kendall, showing anime films. Then we were at GVSU in Allendale for 17 years until we outgrew the location.”

JAFAX eXpo highlights include:
 
Artist Alley and Vendor Exhibits         Cosplay Costume and Performance Skits  
  • Sunday, June 26 4:30—6pm
  • DeVos Place Convention Center
  • Ballroom D
The Maid Café - Family-friendly, dining experience with a Victorian Japanese aesthetic, featuring interaction between attendees and actors.
  • Saturday, June 25
  • 11:30am – 6pm
  • Sunday, June 26
  • 11:30am – 3pm
  • Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, Atrium Room (Reservations are strongly recommended.)
Other activities include guest script reading, cosplay photo shoots, game shows, a video game tournament, and a brand new dance on Saturday evening. JAFAX is also partnering with Michigan Blood in hosting a blood drive during the weekend’s events.

Morris says the general public is welcome and encouraged to come experience the culture at JAFAX, as well as learn more about this educational nonprofit organization.
 
For more information about JAFAX and to purchase tickets, visit www.JAFAX.org.
 
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

The ultimate BBQ: A West Michigan guide to briskets, butts, birds, and ribs

The West Michigan Tourist Association recently sent out a press release highlighting the best BBQ in West Michigan. 

Their heart was in the right place, but it was a little too… touristy. (FireKeepers Casino Hotel? Really?)

Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed and Rapid Growth has prepared a simple guide to help you find great, authentic barbecue in the region, this summer and beyond.

Downtown GR

Slow’s Bar B-Q
Located at the Downtown Market (435 Ionia Ave. SW).
Traditional meats, sides and a very nice craft beer selection.

Two Scotts Barbecue
Located at 536 Leonard St. NW in a a refurbished root beer stand.
The two Scotts work hard and do a good job with their meats and sides.

Horseshoe Smokehouse
Located near Founder’s Brewing (333 Grandville Ave. SW).
Excellent menu with a few twists like crispy brussels sprouts.

Daddy Pete’s BBQ
The pitmaster is always in the house. Cory and his team smoke the meat and serve out of a food truck located at Rosa Parks Circle on Thursdays.  Daddy Pete’s is always on the move so check out their website for other locations. Outstanding barbecue.

Further afield

Pit Stop Catering
Located at 6479 28t St. SE.
Matt and Sue Smith helped catalyze the barbecue scene in the area when they moved their catering operation to a brick and mortar location. Great EVERYTHING.  Check out their website for hours.

The Grilling Company
Located at 6231 West River Dr. NE in Belmont, Mich.
Keith Hall is always chopping and stacking wood. That’s a very good sign. This is wood-cooked and smoked barbecue at its best.

Dallas Deli
Located at 3660 Byron Center Ave. SW in Wyoming, Mich.
A little treasure tucked away on Byron Center. Dallas Deli serves Texas-style BBQ. Very authentic.

Even further afield

Main St. BBQ
Located at 210 E. Main St. in Lowell, Mich.
One of the newer barbecue joints in the region that’s already landing big praise. Real students of the ‘que. Brisket, ribs, butts, and birds -- plus a full menu of sides.

Kurly’s House of Smoke
Located at 8025 Cannonsburg Rd. NE in Cannonsburg Village, Mich.
Really good smoked meats that are served out of a gas-station/breakfast diner/grocery store.  Kitty-corner to the famous Honeycreek Inn.

American Char
Located at 6394 Adams St. in Zeeland, Mich.
Chef Len is one of the most visible proponents of barbecue in West Michigan. His new place in Zeeland also serves ice cream. That is a winning combo.

West Michigan also boasts multiple outstanding barbecue catering businesses, pig roasters, roadside pits, and barbecue events.  Just keep your eyes open and your windows rolled down. Trust the smoke.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Photos courtesy of Pit Stop Catering, The Grilling Company and Grilladelic.
 
 

Creatives have a new work space in downtown Grand Rapids

A new co-working space in downtown Grand Rapids, Left Right Boom Collaborative, is all about bringing together “left brain thinking and right brain creativity.”

The space is located at 8 Ransom Ave NE and was founded by a trio of freelancers, Joe Morris, Rian Morgan and Terry Vanden Akker, all of whom started the business with a very specific target market in mind.

“We are geared for web dev, marketing, design and advertising professionals,” says Morris.

As successful freelancers, Morris says the founding team has an acute sensitivity to the needs these professionals. The space boasts a variety of features that help with both the creative process and with client consultations.  

Amenities at Left Right Boom Collaborative include 48-inch or 72-inch Haworth sit/stand desks, wall space for mind-mapping, free use of a fully tricked out conference room, high-speed internet, coffee, a resource library, and something you don’t find to often in downtown, free parking.

“We understand the day-to-day workflow and needs of freelance creatives,” says Morris.

Besides the physical space, Morris says they anticipate that that there will be ample opportunity for members to collaborate on projects as the community grows. Future plans includes a Mastermind group for freelance creatives, portfolio days and ask-an-expert workshops.  

There are several membership levels. Part-time membership (two days/week) begin at $100 for a  48-inch desk and $150 for a 72-inch desk. Full-time membership begins at $200 for a 48-inch desk and $250 for a 72-inch desk.

Besides the co-working spaces, Left Right Boom Collaborative also has a conference room that is available for individuals, teams and organizations to rent at $35 per hour or $140 per day.  

To learn more about this space, you can visit their website here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
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