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StartUp News: UberEATS arrives in Grand Rapids

The on-demand economy may seem like the hip new trend, like startup mega giant Uber, but we have had on-demand delivery in the form of pizza delivery for decades. As a matter of fact, Columbia Pictures’ 2011 action-comedy 30 Minutes Or Less about a pizza delivery guy was actually filmed here in Grand Rapids. 

The race to instant delivery perhaps started in the pizza delivery arena, with companies offering shorter and shorter time windows from order to delivery, but it is no surprise that Uber has since entered the on-demand delivery race as well. Already present in other major markets around the country, Uber Eats competes with Postmates and DoorDash and locally with Seamless and GrubHub.

Last week UberEATS officially launched in the Greater Grand Rapids area. In a press release, Peter Forsberg, UberEATS General Manager for Michigan said “The UberEATS app allows users to order food delivery whenever they get a craving, with menus available from over 40 restaurant locations in Grand Rapids.”

Here’s how UberEATS works:
  1. Download the free standalone UberEATS app for iOS or Android
  2. Login with your Uber account
  3. Find a restaurant you know and love, and pick what you want from their menu
  4. Pay with your card on file
  5. Watch as the order is picked up and delivered to you
To celebrate the launch, first-time eaters can enter the promo code MICHIGANEATS to receive their first two deliveries free, now through December 21, 2017.

The press release adds “We will be launching in downtown Grand Rapids and surrounding neighborhoods including Grandville, Walker, East Grand Rapids and Kentwood.”

Grand Rapids has already large startups Seamless and GrubHub present, but Vox Media’s EATER reports UberEATS dominance of the delivery service market in other cities as overwhelming. Quarter over quarter, it shows users flocking to UberEATS over all other apps, and Grand Rapids may soon follow suit.
Coming back to Grand Rapids after being in a larger city can sometimes be jarring for a number of reasons, most notably the lack of late night food options and delivery. With the advent of Uber and Lyft, the next inevitable creature comfort service was going to be same-day delivery. 

From Uber’s press release:

UberEATS gives Grand Rapids more options:
  • Folks looking to eat in Grand Rapids now have access to menus from over 40 of their favorite restaurant locations, delivered seven days a week, at Uber speed including Brick & Porter, Curry Kitchen, Wealthy St Bakery, and more!
  • Restaurants in Grand Rapids can depend on the Uber delivery network to get more meals delivered to more customers, quickly and reliably
  • Drivers looking for flexible ways to earn can connect restaurants with customers–making money by making deliveries
Brick & Porter’s General Manager Elias says, “could be interesting to see really how fast these deliveries will go. We have not had any issues or complaints yet.” Grand Rapids sure is growing up, and there is no sign of slowing down. 

Who knows what will happen if Amazon decides to relocate to West Michigan for their second location. Some of us are still holding out for more all-night diners...especially downtown. One can hope!

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo courtesy of UberEATS.

Meet Kaitlyn Califf: Developer breaking down barriers for other women

Ever since the boost of the tech industry in the early 2000s, stories surrounding app developments, and the evolution of technology has been male dominated. Although the technology industry continues to be a white-cis-male dominated industry, there are women from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences who are working hard to ensure others have access to these spaces.

To explore this narrative, we begin this three-part series highlighting brilliant women who are developing apps, websites and turning ideas into screen realities with Kaitlyn Califf, a developer and marketing professional in Grand Rapids.

Califf, a woman of color, originally from Guatemala and raised in Muskegon, began her career as a developer after finishing a boot-camp course at Grand Circus C# Coding Bootcamp where she got to build a web application from scratch.

Califf believes it's not about what you know but who you know when navigating what she deems as an “unwelcoming environment.”

“For me, that means networking to meet those willing to mentor and guide you. If those in the industry are not open to creating this environment of inclusion, the industry will continue being a white-cis-male dominated industry,” shares Califf. The front-end developer stays in Grand Rapids because she sees the budding growth and opportunities here.

“I have been on the front line of this change and see great potential,” says Califf.

As the Project Coordinator for Vias Latino Market Consultants, Califf spends her days coding in HTML, CSS, and ASP.NET, and advocating to ensure other women and women of color have access to the tech industry. She does this by continuing to collaborate with Grand Circus and by serving as the Marketing Co-Chair for BL²END whose mission is to foster an environment of growth and belonging for young professionals of color in Grand Rapids. The young professional uses her skills towards the efforts of diversity and inclusion through non-profit organization and hopes her visibility encourages other girls to want to follow in on her foot-steps.

“It is all about creating an open environment where women and their talents are valued. Girls will not chose a career with more roadblocks than opportunities,” says Califf.

Michelle Jokisch Polo is Rapid Growth's On The Ground Editor. To connect with Michelle, you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Ag Help: Optimizing connections between migrant workers and farms

Many of us have the privilege to not have to know where our food comes from. We don’t have to know about the hands who worked from sun-up to sun-down on our countries’ fields carefully selecting and inspecting the curves of the tomatoes that eventually end up decorating our lunch plates and filling our bellies with nutrients.

For eighteen years, Feliciano, Ivan & Sadoc Paredes worked alongside their father, mother, younger brother, and four sisters picking fruits and vegetables in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Michigan. Often having to rely on word of mouth, and outdated flyers to find work and faced with the unpredictability of whether the site would have appropriate housing for their family—uncertainties plagued the Paredes family from year to year as migrant farm workers. Not only was the network of work unreliable, but constantly having to be newcomers at every site proved difficult when trying to find support services like health clinics and education programs.

With their childhood history of farm work and familiar with the many barriers it brought, Feliciano wanted to use his passions for technology to ensure every migrant farm worker is well connected to a stable site of employment, housing, basic needs, and educational and health support services.

The project was born in 2011 with the three brothers, and it quickly took off when the three pitched the idea to one of the of the CIS app development classes in hopes that a student would be interested in helping them tackle the project. The project inspired graduate student, Xiaomei Huang, who immigrated from China, to take on the development of the app as her capstone project transforming the idea into a reality with AgHelp.

AgHelp is the name of the free application available for Android and Apple operating systems connecting farmworkers with agricultural employers, and support services near them.

“We wanted to address the needs for agricultural employers to attract more talent, so that they can harvest their crops, and to help farm workers find the local support services and work as they travel across the country and within their own state,” shares Feliciano Paredes.

“This helps increase a farmworker’s earning potential by allowing each to continue to earn money during downtimes at their home farm. A farm worker would do this by simply using AgHelp to find available agricultural work near them," says Paredes.

The app also provides the user with instant notifications of crop conditions to help every farm worker know what to expect when they arrive at the site, or know if they need to find work elsewhere.

“Farmworkers will feel more safe and secure knowing that they can locate support services, like migrant health clinics, migrant educations programs, legal assistance no matter where they go to find work,” says Paredes.

To help minimize any barriers, a user only has to provide their name and an email address to be able to apply for jobs, follow agencies and farmers, and use some of the other features of the app. The app also functions as a platform for employers to post their jobs.

“We've had some great reactions from farmers who say they are spending thousands of dollars a week pre harvest doing a kinds of recruitment, with poor results. They see this as an option for them to have access to a national pool of agricultural labor, they would never be able to connect with,” explains Paredes.

In addition, this app could function as another great tool for agricultural employers to use to help with labor crisis in Michigan and across the country, according to Adam Kantrovich from MSU Extension, program of Michigan State University providing expertise of the institution to communities, individuals, and businesses, who has been working with Paredes to expand their work across the state.

Currently the pair has been able to attract 10 employers in West Michigan, and a couple out of state who are eager to start using the app to post jobs.

To find more about this app please visit their site at www.aghelpusa.com.

Michelle Jokisch Polo is Rapid Growth's On The Ground Editor. To connect with Michelle, you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

MetaFi: Local App developed to track mental health

There’s an app for that! We have all heard it, and while most new apps are finding elaborate new ways for you to pony up cash through an addictive game, there are still new apps aimed at bringing traditional services into the digital age.

The co-founders of MetaFi, a self-awareness app that supports mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and body awareness, are looking to bring some aspects of counseling to the digital age. Rapid Growth caught up with both co-founders Benjamin Reisterer MA, LPC and Tom Engelsman to chat about their new app and how it works.

The duo chose to build an app around mental health and emotion tracking because of experience, a frustration, and desire to help.

Reisterer says, “I am a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice here in Grand Rapids at Mindful Counseling GR. I was noticing that a common theme that, regardless of background, reason for coming in, etc., most of my clients were engaging the vast majority of their experiences from the neck up. Most people had very little awareness of how their body experienced emotions, relationships, day to day activities, etc. So I often found myself helping clients cultivate and be more aware of their own mind/body connection and then being able to take that information to spur positive change in their lives.

The body can often give us clues before we are cognitively aware of what is going on. It's kind of like foreshadowing in a book or movie; it's not outright telling you what is going on, but if you pay attention, you can get a pretty good idea. So through doing this work, I found myself looking for effective tools and didn't really find much that I was liking. So the idea for the app was born through that.”

With such a complicated subject matter as emotions, it can be difficult to find an easy way for users to learn and effectively use the app, yet MetaFi has found a way.

Engelsman states “Via a simple interface, you can identify your primary and secondary emotions, and visually locate where they are causing a sensation on a map of a body. You then apply tags for categorization, and can also attach notes. Over time, this collected data is visualized into a complete picture of your history of emotions, in the form of graphs and heatmaps. You can also filter by dates and compare time periods.”

Learning to help ourselves can seemingly add more work to our day, but Reister says that there is a benefit to tracking your emotions. “Many of our problems stem from our reactionary (knee-jerk, unconscious, etc.) behaviors, thoughts, and feelings," says Reisterer. "The more we can cultivate self-awareness around how we are reacting, the more ability we have to make an intentional and authentic response to something."

Both co-founders have ambitious goals for their new venture as Reisterer says, “I think the biggest goal for MetaFi is that it becomes a well known, reliable, and personalized tool for people to begin to cultivate self-awareness and approach themselves and their lives more mindfully.” 

An app that could have the potential to be heavily used and gain notoriety would send most teams to Silicon Valley or New York, but Reisterer says if the app gains popularity, the team would stay based in Grand Rapids. “The biggest reason is that this is home. I am married with three kids and we want to provide some stability in a part of the country that we feel is beautiful and that we have made some great relationships in. Additionally, I love the way my career as a counselor in private practice has been built here and the clients that I am honored to sit with every day,” he says.

The MetaFi team is already hard at work for their latest update of features. “In the near future we plan to expand the analytics side of MetaFi, allowing more comparisons to real-world events; for example, an upcoming feature is the ability to correlate emotions with weather patterns. In the long-term, we aim to become the gold standard for emotion tracking and mindfulness,” says Engelsman.

You can find the app available for download here on iOS and Android devices

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

SkyBox Cloud makes the move from Reno to Grand Rapids

It’s home sweet home for the husband and wife team of Tim and Shelly Averill, the chief technical officer and chief executive officer (respectively) of SkyBox Cloud LLC, as they move their headquarters from Reno, Nevada to Grand Rapids, Michigan.

SkyBox Cloud is a provider of  secure and reliable offsite server hosting, application hosting and cloud backup for small to enterprise sized companies. “We fill the gap for companies looking for something different than Amazon, Google or Microsoft Azure. We work with our clients, review their infrastructure and then build it. It ends up being a turnkey solution,” says Tim Averill.
 
He says his company provides consultation in the front end, so they can design the best possible plan for their clients. He adds that many of SkyBox’s customers once owned their own server systems and then made the switch to SkyBox’s  monthly service plan when they understood the hidden costs of power, cooling, hardware and software maintenance, floor space, personal property taxes, and obsolescence.  “We build custom solutions,” Averill notes.

Averill, a native of Grand Rapids, says the catalyst for the move was simply to be closer to family and help care for his mother. However, a move to the Midwest was always on the couple’s radar.  “We had plans to hit this market: Chicago, Grand Rapids, Detroit; my family situation only accelerated the move,” he explains.

SkyBox Cloud serves customers in a wide variety of industries. The company owns server farms in Tier 4 data storage facilities in Sacramento and Dallas that have several levels of entry security and redundancies that prevent interruptions due to loss of electricity, internet connections and cooling. Established in 2011, SkyBox has seven full-time employees at offices in Reno, Nevada, two locally, and a team of about 20 subcontractors in the United States and internationally.

Averill says the industry continues on a very positive growth curve. “There is a lot of opportunity. For example, security concerns continue to grow and grow. Even though people are more aware of security risks, many people don’t realize  the extent how high their risk is.”

He says they are currently looking for office space in or near downtown and should be ready to announce the location in the first quarter of 2017. Once moved, they will be looking to hiring administration, sales and engineering positions. 

To learn more about SkyBox Cloud, you can view their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Help wanted: Exploring (and landing) a design career in West Michigan

Rapid Growth Media recently published a story about all the interesting work being done locally in designing for the world of connectivity, aka the Internet of Things (IoT). For many folks, working on connected devices is not the first thing you might think of when considering a career in design.

Design can mean different things to different people, and it is often a bit misunderstood by individuals without industry familiarity: parents with children exploring careers, students in high school or college figuring out what to study, and even some teachers and career counselors. It’s easy to imagine the conversations. My kid wants to be a designer, what’s that mean?  Fashion? Interior design? Are there jobs?

The truth is design is more interesting than mystifying. It is just that the breadth of careers, areas of study and specialization create truly unique career choices with different skill sets.

Grand Rapids is home to many organizations in many different industries that have robust design teams and can provide very interesting, well paying, and creative careers.

Rapid Growth Media asked Ken Krayer, Director of Design West Michigan, and John O'Neill, President of AIGA West Michigan and the Principal and Creative Director of Conduit, to provide a little perspective as to what a career in design might mean.

(Plus, we highlighted three great companies with job openings for designers, which you can check out at the end of the article.)

RGM:  What are “design jobs”?

KK: “Design jobs” cover a broad range of opportunities and industries, including, but not limited to, communication design, product design, fashion design, interior design, furniture design, sustainable design, experience design, sound design, architecture, information design, and even food design. Many of these disciplines include specialization opportunities, such as type design, as well as collaborative, cross-disciplinary opportunities. Designers often move within and across disciplines over the life of their careers.

RGM: What is the job forecast within the design industry over the next five to 10 years?

KK: We are seeing a brighter spotlight on design, especially here in West Michigan, as more and more companies are placing design at the center of their business strategies. Many Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) design graduates who could pursue careers elsewhere choose to stay in the area because of the robust opportunities that exist here.
 
RGM: What would surprise people (non-designers) about the design industry and design careers?

KK: Most people who are not designers are surprised at the breadth and depth of career possibilities in design. Other professions often cross over with design due to the interdisciplinary power of design. Some examples of these are photography, engineering, research, marketing, and design management. Design thinking gives non-designers the tools and skills needed to develop and apply iterative solutions to problem solving.

JO: Michigan has a surprisingly robust design community, with jobs in industrial design, architecture, interior design, branding, and UI/UX. In certain fields, such as industrial design, we have more designers per capita than any other state, and these designers make about $10,000 more annually than similar positions in other states.

RGM: Looking at your crystal ball, what and where will the design jobs be in 10 to 20 years?

JO: The law of truly large numbers states that even a small percent of a large number is a large number. China now has 400 design programs and over 10,000 designers graduating each year, so we are no doubt going to see China come onto the international design scene in the next 20 years. However, I still feel that our rich design heritage and world class design institutions have a lot to offer, so it should be interesting.

RGM: What are great sources for information about careers within the design industry?

KK: For any specific statistics on design, I would suggest you see the 2016 Creative State Michigan Creative Industries Report. A copy of the report can be viewed here. Design careers are included within the overall category of creative industries.
 
In addition,for more information on design in our region, visit the Design West Michigan website. Membership is free. You can sign up for our mailings on the web site. Design West Michigan is part of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University.
 
Design jobs in West Michigan

Are you actively looking for a great job in design?  Here are three very successful, interesting and different companies that currently have job openings.

Ben Smith at Designvox shared an opening for a Web Designer. Check out the job description here.

The team at Visualhero and OST are looking for a senior user experience designer. Find out more here.

If you are interested in working at a larger company, Kedron Rhodes is putting together a design team at Gordon Food Service. To learn about applying, go here.

For more career opportunities, AIGA West Michigan keeps a job board updated here.
 
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Tech Tales: New website tells the stories of West Michigan's technology scene

"There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them."

OK…referencing the tag line from an iconic 1950s police drama seems a bit random, but the sentiment is true. There are countless very interesting untold stories about West Michigan’s tech sector, and Mike Sudyk is determined to get the bottom of it.

Sudyk is the vice president of operations of the EC Group International, a Comstock Park-based firm that builds software teams for product-based software companies, and he is the force behind GR Tech List, a website that features video-stories about local tech scene and companies.

The inspiration (and purpose) of GR Tech List is a bit counterintuitive. It comes from Sudyk’s interest in helping share the story of the EC Group— which he thought was best done by telling the story of other companies in the broader West Michigan tech community.  “Being a local company around since 1999, we have actually had a very little number of clients in West Michigan, and it was only until recently that we started to invest in the local tech scene. We started to get more involved with networking and realized that there is a lot of cool stuff going on in Grand Rapids. It seemed unfortunate to not have more awareness to what was going on.”

When it comes to storytelling, video is the tool of choice for Sudyk, especially when your recent marketing hire is very creative and has ton of experience with film and video.  “We had seen that video is such a powerful medium for storytelling, and that is what drove us to hire a full time creative director,” Sudyk says, referring to Maria VanDyken. “She does all our video production, and, having gone through the process ourselves, we know the value but also the pain of having to figure out how to tell your story. We realized that we can offer this to the tech community to hopefully bring more awareness to the region, as well as get us plugged into these companies to develop a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Sudyk describes the GR Tech List as a side project for the EC Group, and he is letting the project grow organically before making definitive plans for the site’s next steps.  “We would like to see it grow so that it becomes the go to spot for people to get an idea of what is going on in the Grand Rapids tech scene,” he explains. “Eventually there is an opportunity to drive potential investors to the site, as well as talent that the region needs to stay competitive. I believe in the old saying that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats,’ so the opportunity to build the region is a net positive to everyone here.” 

To date, there have been 10 videos filmed and eight videos posted on the site.  Sudyk says his team identifies potential companies to profile, typically small to mid-size tech firms and everything is provided free of charge.  “The reaction has been really positive so far,” he says. “The companies are very happy to have been featured, and they have been actively promoting the site to their networks. We have not done a significant amount of general promotion of the site as of yet but are planning to in the next two months to drive traffic to the site.”

Sudyk says GR Tech List is designed to be a win-win. For the EC Group, “it plugs us into the community, builds our brand awareness, opens up new opportunities, and helps us keep a finger on the pulse of the region.”  For the greater tech sector, “the vision is to spotlight how great West Michigan is and that it is a place that technology companies are flourishing and then to help facilitate the growth of the region.”

To learn more about the EC Group, you can visit their site here.  View the GR Tech List site 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.”

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

The Midwest Tech Mentoring Program building bridges byte by byte

It was bitter cold outside when Jonathan Jelks and Alvin Hill IV officially launched The Midwest Tech Mentoring Program at the Grand Rapids Art Museum on Feb. 11.
 
But, inside, it was 'en fuego.’ 
 
The kick-off was on fire with optimism, ideas and plans to prepare more young men and women for careers in technology.
 
The venue was packed. The audience was diverse: parents, students; educators; tech, business and nonprofit professionals; entrepreneurs; and representatives from local government. Young and old.  They all gathered to learn more about an initiative that promises to connect inner city youth of color to the career opportunities within the knowledge and creative economies.
 
Jelks introduced a variety of speakers, including Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, all of whom were enthusiastic supporters of the program.
 
"Our mission is to educate, engage and to expose inner city youth to the world of technology and the opportunities available in the tech industry in Grand Rapids,” he says.
 
Jelks envisions a program that features hands-on learning (software development, coding, program management and design) and mentorship with local tech professionals.
 
"We want to teach kids about about the benefits of becoming an IT professional and/or tech entrepreneur,” Jelks explains. “We also want kids and parents alike to walk away with a thorough understanding of what it will take from an education standpoint to be able to take advantage of the creative economy."
 
There is still much work to be done, but Jelks and Hill plan to launch the formal program in May 2016.
 
"We will be fundraising to get the equipment needed to run our program and to hire our staff,” Jelks says. “We are recruiting mentors from Grand Rapid's tech community. We will be going out to Silicon Valley in March to meet with different tech companies to learn about the ‘Diversity in IT’ programs that are working and receiving support."
 
To learn more about the program, including contact information and how to get involved, you can follow their Facebook event page here.
 
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Photos by Tricia Leigh Jackson / Start Garden

Simms Electronics: Changing the world, one project at a time

Simms Electronics is a great example of a small company working on big ideas that turn into very smart products. And there is a very good chance you never of heard of them.

Simms Electronics is located at 3230 Broadmoor Ave. The firm designs and manufactures sophisticated IoT electronics that serve a wide variety of commercial products in the industrial sector.

IoT, which is the abbreviation for Internet of Things, refers to smart products that are connected to the internet.  Examples in the consumer market are home appliances and light fixtures that are connected and controlled by smart phones. In the industrial setting these products could include sensors for carbon monoxide and monitors to help control energy consumption in large commercial settings.

Matt Simms, the president of the five-person engineering firm, says the company keeps a low profile and is not able to share details about many of their projects, but he is committed to attracting and retaining software design talent to Grand Rapids. Simms says the IoT market is really growing and shows no signs of slowing down.
 
"We have several projects in the pipeline and will shortly be announcing new job openings,” he says.

Working with a  small company is a great opportunity for an engineer or software developer that values job variety, Simms notes.
 
"We are always working on different opportunities, with different products, in different markets and different industries,” he says. “You are not stuck working on one product for several years. It is great experience."

To learn more about Simms Electronics, including job opportunities, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 

UIX Blog: Competition breeds creativity in West Michigan

Several of the people and organizations UIX has covered in the past have entered and found success in different business competitions. These competitions each have different parameters and ends to promote, but they share a commonality in that the most innovative and well-planned out ideas rise to the top.
 
Here in Grand Rapids, 5x5 Night and Start Garden, projects of Rick DeVos, were topics when UIX launched in 2013. In December 2015 we featured 5x5 Night winner Liz Bartlett, of KNITit, and Start Garden tenant Oxx, Inc. Even ArtPrize has led to sustainable efforts covered in UIX, like Nick Rudolfski's work with the Zero Waste Zone and Water Share.
 
The Wege Prize, a contest focused on sustainable business models in West Michigan schools, was a feature in April 2014, and has been host to individuals featured in UIX stories, too. FusionGrow, an indoor planting project, took first place in 2014, and a local loop farm design by Western Sustainers won in 2015.
 
In January 2015 UIX covered Vanessa Gore and Soletics, a company that makes electrically enhanced, solar powered garments for people with certain conditions. Soletics had taken part in 11 business competitions by the time they were featured in Rapid Growth Media. Over the course of its first year, Soletics participated in six business competitions, including the Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge, the Green Light Business Model Competition, the Great Lakes Entrepreneur's Quest, and the International Business Model Competition.
 
In the 2014 MWest Challenge, where Soletics took second place and $10,000, RefuTea, a tea company that helps refugees, won the Social Venture award. RefuTea also won a 90-second pitch competition at Grand Valley State University, and represented the school at the TCU Richards Barrentine Values and Ventures Business Plan Competition.
 
That's not to say that competitions like these are the only thing driving innovation in the region. Our archives are filled with plenty of people and companies that have growth in many different ways. But, the pattern that exists is clear, and West Michigan is certainly all the better for the ideas these contests foster.

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. To see more UIX stories, you can check out the entire series here. Have thoughts or ideas about UIX? Contact UIX Grand Rapids Editor Matthew Russell at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.

French auto & aerospace manufacturer taps Grand Rapids for first North American Innovation Center

As the auto industry hit a downward spiral of historic proportions about eight years ago, Hutchinson, a global automotive and aerospace innovator and manufacturer, was, like companies across the world, faced with an economy in which they were hemorrhaging major money.

Hutchinson’s Grand Rapids site, which has been operating in the city for 30 years and which was previously known as Paulstra CRC, “was in bad shape, losing millions (of dollars),” says Cedric Duclos, Hutchinson North America president and CEO.

“I was sent here to find solutions; we knew the easy way was to shut it down,” Duclos says of his arrival in Grand Rapids. “But that’s not the right choice. You have so much talent and experience here.”

Hutchinson, which employs about 300 people in Grand Rapids and operates 96 sites in 23 countries across the globe, did not leave the city — instead, it stayed, and the company is now in a far different position than the one in which it previously found itself. Last Wednesday, Hutchinson debuted its North American Innovation Center, also known as the 616 Fab House, which occupies 13,400 square feet of a renovated 100-year-old factory at 460 Fuller Ave. NE.

“We’re here eight years later and are a leader in this market,” Duclos says at the 616 Fab House’s grand opening on January 20, which was attended by more than 170 guests, including Hutchinson Global President & CEO Jacques Maigne, The Right Place Inc. President & CEO Birgit Klohs, and state and city leaders.

The space is the company’s second innovation center; its first, 507 Fab House, was designed by the legendary Gustave Eiffel and is located near Hutchinson’s Paris world headquarters. Housed in a factory that was once the Corduroy Rubber Co., which made parts for Detroit’s auto industry, the Grand Rapids venue was chosen because of “its central location to major clients and vendors” and is dedicated to “research, development and innovative thinking for all of Hutchinson’s divisions,” according to Hutchinson.

The Fuller Avenue site includes a mix of meeting rooms, videoconferencing technology, interactive showrooms with product and robotic displays, a fabrication lab and 3D printer center, a training and conference center, a board room, breakout and lounge seating, banquet facilities, and more. The interactive product display area shows all the products made by the company’s North American operations. For example, there are replicas of an airplane fuselage, a full-size automobile and military tank treads with actual Hutchinson parts inserted.

Duclos notes that about 70 local companies participated in renovating the new space, which sits on Hutchinson’s 30-acre Grand Rapids campus and which previously served as a storage facility.

“This facility is over 100 years old, so it’s full of footsteps from the past,” Duclos says. “In fact, if you look closely at some of these floors, you can still see those footprints. We felt it important to keep some of those footsteps visible, not just as a way to reflect on the past, but to also use it as a reminder that it takes the footsteps of many people to create things, to innovate, to collaborate, to create. Perhaps in another 100 years people will be standing here, reflecting on the historical changes this innovation had for our company, for our city and region, and for our state.”

The company’s decision to not only remain in Grand Rapids but open a world-class facility to drive global innovation “speaks highly for the region’s community,” says Klohs, the president and CEO of The Right Place, West Michigan’s leading economic development corporation that has assisted thousands of companies to invest more than $4 billion in capital and create more than 40,000 jobs throughout the region.

“It sends a message that says a company of this importance has chosen Grand Rapids,” Klohs says, noting that a global group like Hutchinson will draw other major companies to our area, including Boeing, Chrysler, Fiat, and many more.

“They can come to Grand Rapids and see the creativity that comes out of this company, and also this community,” Klohs continues.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, who was unable to attend the grand opening because she was at the Mayors’ Conference in Washington D.C., sent her congratulations via a recorded message.

“The city of Grand Rands is very proud to have a longtime business such as Hutchinson invest in our city, particularly in our manufacturing and technology sectors,” she says. “This innovation and dedication to advancing research and development is exactly what the city of Grand Rapids need to be a leader in this country.”

Photos courtesy of Hutchinson

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth. Connect with her on email (AKGustaf@gmail.com), Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

C2 Group looks to build excitement for high tech careers

C2 Group will host six high school students as part of the Kent Intermediate School District's (KISD) Groundhog Shadow Day Program on February 2.

The KISD program is designed to help introduce and prepare students for careers in a wide variety of industries.  Students may choose from one of up to 300 roles to shadow for a day to gain a better understanding of the industry, day-to-day operations and responsibilities, and educational requirements for obtaining successful employment.

At the C2 Group — a Grand Rapids-based, full-service web experience provider — students will learn about careers in the software industry and gain hands-on experience with software design and development while building a mobile app.

Brian Beaupied, marketing communications manager, says this is the second year for C2 Group to participate  in the program and the first in their new location, 560 5th Street NW, Ste. 100 (the Grand Rapids Furniture Campus). He says the firm is committed to supporting community efforts to expose more high school students to the tremendous career opportunities within the tech sector.
 
"It’s important because we need to do our part in building excitement and awareness for careers in the high-demand technology field,” Beaupied says. “Our participation in programs like Groundhog Shadow Day can provide students with actual hands-on experience in a field of their interest, as well as invaluable mentorship from some incredibly talented professionals."

C2 has been in its downtown, westside Grand Rapids location for almost four months. Previously, they were based out of Grandville. The move was made to accommodate the needs of a growing agency. Beaupied says the new location has almost 2,000 more square feet and is designed to support the creative needs of a tech workforce. 

Beaupied says the firm is in the hiring mode.
 
"We’re always interested in talking to qualified candidates for any position (designers, developers, CMS specialists, project leads),” he notes. “We currently have 28 employees with a goal of growing our team by 30 percent during 2016."   Current openings can be found here:http://c2experience.com/about/

For more information about C2 Group, visit www.c2experience.com or follow them on Twitter (@thec2group).

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor
 
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