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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

There's gold in them thar landfills: How Kent County is changing its stance on trash

Kent County has big plans for its trash.
 
The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF) recently released the Economic Impact Potential and Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste report, which spelled out how much money this area could save if it changed the way it deals with trash. (See Rapid Growth’s story here.)

And while there isn’t actual gold in our landfills, the $56 million in potential economic value that is thrown away each year should be an incentive for entrepreneurs, businesses and government to find innovative ways to change the way solid waste is managed.

Using the report as a catalyst, the Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW) announced strategic goals to reduce waste going to a landfill by 20 percent by 2020 and by 90 percent by 2030. The aggressive 20x’20 and 90x’30 Vision is similar to waste reduction goals set by New York City, Phoenix, Austin, and San Francisco.

Dar Baas, the director of Kent County Department of Public Works, discusses in an interview with Rapid Growth specific steps to better manage waste, the challenges to move forward and the need to reset perceptions about trash.

RG: What are the immediate next steps you will be taking to reach your 2020 goal? 
 
DB: Our focus is threefold. First, improve collection and processing of discarded materials in the business and residential sectors, where existing collection and processing infrastructure already exists, including bottle deposit containers, corrugated cardboard, all types of scrap metal, paper and plastic. Second, construction and demolition debris generated by new and remodel commercial and residential construction (improving the collection of this debris). Third, provide a robust composting network to divert food waste and other organic materials that have nutrient value and could be used as a soil amendment.
 
RG: What are the biggest challenges you face as you move forward, and what are you doing to overcome these challenges?
 
DB: Our biggest challenges are that we’re lacking a consistent message and we’re trying to change habits.

A consistent message for residential and public space recycling is critical to reduce confusion about what is accepted. This is lacking on a national level so we decided to start locally since recycling is a very localized system.

As for our habits, diverting food waste and organics in order to use this material for composting should be straightforward, but we’re conditioned to throw everything in the trash so most of us don’t make the effort. Or, more specifically, our system hasn’t trained us to make the effort. We need to change the system and then change the behavior. Having viable infrastructure and services developed to collect material will also be necessary, and finding cost effective ways to offer these alternatives will be required.
 
RG: What are the most innovative and successful programs being used in other communities (similar in size to Grand Rapids) to increase recycling efforts?  Would these work here? 
 
DB: Kent County has always been a leader in technology and infrastructure to manage discarded materials. For 25 years we’ve had two significant facilities, Kent County’s Waste to Energy Facility and Kent County’s Recycling Center, that are helping West Michigan to reduce landfilled waste. What we’re working on now is an expansion of that, but it’s interesting to compare our challenges to other communities (of any size). Almost universally, these four things rise to the top of most community waste reduction strategies: education and outreach campaigns to increase the quantity and quality of recyclables; providing cost-effective organics collection and processing; establishing programs and services for the business sector to reduce waste; and developing infrastructure to process construction and demolition waste.

As it turns out, our waste challenges and the resulting strategies to solve them are very similar to those of San Diego, Fort Collins, Santa Monica, Albuquerque, Maryland, Oberlin (Ohio), Boulder, San Jose, Austin, and even Scotland! Naturally, everyone’s approach is just a little different (policy changes vs. pure education) depending on their community dynamics.
 
RG: How do you envision the private sector's role in reaching these goals?
 
DB: The private sector will be important in several ways. A number of West Michigan companies have been leading the efforts to become more sustainable and desire to have zero waste to landfill policies that are driving the larger effort locally; we need to share their successes and the steps they took to successfully implement change. All companies, particularly smaller organizations, need to be open to change on how they manage their discards, and the first step is taking a look at their trash. This could be an internal assessment or through a formal waste audit to determine what they really are throwing away as trash and what they can to do to divert some, or all, of it. Waste haulers will need to diversify collection habits to deliver material to processing facilities. Private investment in waste conversion and processing technologies will also be part of the mix.    

RG: If you could change one misperception about trash, what would that be?
 
DB: The trash can is not the end of the line. We need to start looking at trash as “end of life” material with value that shouldn’t simply be thrown away, destined for the landfill. All of this material has previously been harvested, mined or extracted as a natural resource and should be placed back into a value stream where possible. Both the WMSBF study and our boots on the ground work at the transfer station and landfill supports that there are significant volumes of readily recyclable and compostable material including corrugated cardboard, metals of all types, paper, plastics and organic materials that can be collected separately and sent to facilities to prepare this material as a commodity to be used as a feedstock for manufacturing or agriculture or energy.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

MOKA celebrates the grand opening of its newest group home

MOKA is a Muskegon-based nonprofit organization that supports children and adults with autism, development, developmental disabilities, and mental illnesses throughout West Michigan.

The organization’s mission is to create opportunities for independence and acceptance in local communities by supporting people in making choices, building relationships, sharing places, developing skills and enhancing reputations.

A great example of an organization putting its mission in action is MOKA’s recent construction and opening of the group’s newest group home in the region: Forest Trail Home, located at 3088 South Hilton Park Road in Fruitport, Mich.

Thomas Zmolek, executive director, says the new home is a direct reflection of the organization’s mission. Zmolek says the home is situated in a nice, residential neighborhood and there will be three to four men living in the house, which is less than the typical group homes that might have six people living together.  “We are removing the stigma from group homes for people with disabilities,” he says. “Where someone lives tells a great deal about how society values people.”

Zmolek says his organization supports 37 group homes in the four-county area (Muskegon, Ottawa, Kent and Allegan), with about 200 people living in both group settings and independently.  He says that the smaller sized home, with less people per home, is much better for clinical treatment and, ultimately, less expensive for the organization to support. “The range of options we can provide helps us get people to where they need to be,” he says.

The agency, which was founded in 1978, supports more than 900 individuals and provides more than 750,000 hours of direct source annually. It employs 585 people.

To learn more about MOKA you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

New building provides nonprofit Never The Same with home base to plan, grow, serve, and get muddy

The nonprofit organization, Never The Same, has a new home. It’s bigger, better, cooler, and, hopefully, easy to clean.

Kyle Wood, director of operations and communication, says the facility is designed specifically for the organization, including to help with the planning of its signature fundraising event, The Grand Rapids Mud Run.

The new location is located at 2725 29th St. SE in Grand Rapids and features over 4,000 square feet of modern office space, a large warehouse, loading dock, and other amenities for staff and volunteers. The move comes after a fire left the group’s original building in ruins, causing $100,000 worth of damage, in June 2015.

Wood says the nonprofit has multiple programs and youth camps, and utilizes the Grand Rapids Mud Run as its core fundraising event, which requires months of planning to pull off. “The Grand Rapids Mud Run features over 300 volunteers working the cheering section, obstacle course, logistics, food service and sponsor support,” he says. Wood estimates the event will raise more than $45,000, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting Never the Same, a national youth ministry organization that was founded in West Michigan.

The Grand Rapids Mud Run is scheduled for Saturday, August 27 at 1200 60th St. in Kentwood, next to Celebration Cinemas South. The messy, muddy obstacle and challenge-based 5K run is designed to be safe and fun for the competitive athlete, fun seekers, and families. Wood says that although there are other mud runs in the state, Never The Same is the “pioneer of mud runs.”

This year, more than 1,500 participants are expected to run the course this year, filled with mud pits, a 60-foot mudslide, tunnel crawls, walls, and slippery hill climbs.

The Grand Rapids Mud Run creates new challenges and obstacles to their course every year, so no two races are ever the same. Participation varies from highly competitive challenge-based runs, group and team runs, costume-friendly fun runs, and a Kid’s Mini-Mud fun run for children ages six to twelve years old.

Never The Same is a national organization that teaches middle and high school students around the country how praying can bring positive change in a peaceful way to schools where bullying, violence, gossip and struggles exist in their respective school environments.  

To learn more about the event and the organization, check out their sites here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

 

Franks, sausage and specialty meats producer expected to invest $35 million in expansion

Kent Quality Foods, a West Michigan maker of franks, sausages and specialty meats for commercial customers, has announced the construction of a food processing facility in Jamestown  Charter Township. The company plans to invest nearly $35 million dollars, creating 140 jobs over three years.

“The project was a huge win.” says Emily Staley, director of marketing and communications for Lakeshore Advantage, a non-profit that aims to drive economic growth in West Michigan. “They looked all over the region and they chose us.” Staley says the Lakeshore Advantage team worked  for nearly nine months on this location process, helping to coordinate nearly 15 local and state organizations in winning this expansion for Jamestown Charter Township.

Staley says the jobs that are being created are “really good jobs,” including management positions and production supervision. She also notes the multiple benefits of the new facility to the region, including spin-off jobs with suppliers and construction.

According to Staley, key factors in the decision to build the plant in the local township were the experienced and educated workforce, the region’s expertise in food production and the teamwork between the private and public sectors organizations that are essential for a project of this complexity and size to be successful.

Kent Quality Foods was founded in 1967. Family owned and operated for three generations, Kent makes high quality sausages and franks for customers from hot dog stands to national restaurant chains, food service companies, broad line distributors, and the further processing industry. You can learn more at www.kqf.com.

Lakeshore Advantage is a non-profit organization that catalyzes resources to drive economic growth in West Michigan.  You can learn more here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 
 

Dressing for success at Degage Ministries

Seventy-eight female patrons of the Heartside neighborhood mission Dégagé Ministries received free clothing, accessories and, perhaps most importantly, a little individual attention, encouragement and a lot of respect.

This clothing, accessories, individual attention, encouragement, and respect was possible thanks to a generous donation from the women’s clothing company cabi and the Heart of cabi Foundation.

Bob Kreter, marketing manager at Dégagé Ministries, describes the donation as “a blessing” and the overall experience for the women “transformational.” Kreter says the Dégagé donation is one of 20 locations throughout the country that is on the receiving end of the cabi program.

Kreter said the clothing donation was a surprise and his team had to work quickly to make the program happen. It came about thanks to a Grand Rapids-based cabi Stylist, who recommended Dégagé. Kreter says it is perfect fit. “We both are focused on transformation, not transactions. Like us, they work with women one-on-one.” Kreter says besides clothing (up to eight different pieces of clothing) and accessories donation, each participant had one-on-one time with the cabi Stylist.

Launched in 2002, cabi provides a designer women’s clothing collection and is the nation’s largest social selling apparel company, powered by their independent salespeople, known as Stylists. The Heart of cabi Foundation was launched in 2005 with the mission to encourage and empower women in need. From distributing clothing to U.S. communities affected by natural disasters to empowering women entrepreneurs in the developing world to work their way out of poverty, cabi invests in women across the globe.

Photos courtesy of Dégagé Ministries

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 
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