Grand Rapids rises as a hub for medical startups and innovation

In the heart of Grand Rapids, a new wave of medical innovation is surging, driven by a vibrant ecosystem of startups. While these companies bring groundbreaking ideas and technologies to West Michigan, they also face challenges such as securing funding, navigating complex regulatory environments and establishing effective business models.

Central to addressing these hurdles is "The Bridge," a state-of-the-art incubator space launched by Spartan Innovations in partnership with Health Innovation Partners. The Bridge, along with Grand Rapids' vibrant startup ecosystem, is turning these challenges into opportunities for growth and innovation in the health care sector.

Starting up in Grand Rapids

The startup ecosystem in Grand Rapids has evolved notably, transitioning from a pre-seed venture capital focus to a dynamic hub of entrepreneurial innovation. Spearheaded by organizations like Start Garden, which now administers the Grand Rapids SmartZone, the ecosystem is characterized by collaborative projects and a strong commitment to diversity. And the demand for startup support in the region continues to grow.

Key to this evolution is the city's focus on fostering regional equity and diverse business enterprises, including minority, women and micro local business enterprises. This inclusive approach is bolstering the startup culture, as seen in the significant private and neighborhood business investments in recent years.
Photo by Tyler Herbstreith

Health care startups in particular face a unique mix of challenges — there are rising health care costs, external market factors and staffing shortages. The startups that survive and thrive are those that respond with innovative solutions.

According to Deloitte, the health care industry in 2023 is undergoing significant transformations with the integration of advanced mechanization and telehealth, challenging the traditional models of health care delivery. These technologies bring forth issues of sustainability and integration. Additionally, the rapid digital transformation, especially post-COVID-19, is accelerating the adoption of cloud-based technologies, AI and blockchain, leading to concerns around data privacy and the need for enhanced cybersecurity measures.

Courtesy of The Bridge

Attracting health care innovation to Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids is increasingly becoming a beacon for health care innovation, attracting bright minds and groundbreaking ideas. The Bridge serves as a nurturing ground for high-tech, high-growth startups, offering a fertile environment for entrepreneurs to flourish.

"We offer a good opportunity for entrepreneurs to get their pitch together or run through the Business Model Canvas," says Kyle McGregor, PhD MBA, director of health innovations at Spartan Innovations. "We focus a lot on how to conceptualize your marketing, sell your things and tell your story."

Educational resources and discussions also cover less visible topics like accounting and finance. The members of each business at The Bridge have the opportunity to collaborate on best practices and learn from each other in these events, building our regional lexicon of business knowledge to share with future entrepreneurs.

Further services and support from The Bridge come through a partnership with the city, working with the Grand Rapids Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA) and SmartZone, through which tenants can leverage rent subsidies to bring down costs while focusing on moving their businesses from 0 to 1.

Spartan Innovations is spearheading and co-administering with Start Garden. But the growth and expansion has come as a result of Spartan Innovations involvement in running the SmartZone.

Insights from members of The Bridge

Collaboration and education are important components in fostering medical startups, components which McGregor says are also found within the local culture.

"I am personally passionate [about] Grand Rapids," McGregor says. "This has always been a great place for early stage, high-tech, high-growth companies to get direct access to expertise, whether from the university faculty or the regional tech space.

The current cohort of entrepreneurs at The Bridge agree.
Courtesy Thomas Sikkema
"Startups have a ton of issues that pop up. A lot of it is stuff that we haven't done before," says Tom Sikkema, BSN, RN, founder & CEO of Ride YourWay. "The professional development offered here — It's good to be in a space like this that's very inclusive, just has so much potential to help us get to where you want to go. It really helps us recruit a lot of young talent that's driven, which helps us grow faster."

Ride YourWay helps individuals in the community with getting to and from doctor's appointments, primarily with wheelchair accessible transportation. The service launched in October in Lansing, where the Spartan Innovations and MSU network was critically supportive.

"We've got an appetite to go throughout the whole Midwest region," Sikkema says. "Our mission is to remove barriers that prevent people from living their best life. Our 10 year picture is to remove a million barriers. Ideally, we're just going to continue to grow eastward until we hit Metro Detroit, line that 96 corridor, and start moving into the more rural areas of our state."
Courtesy Tim Gutwald
Mentavi Health is a telemedicine company specializing in mental health, with a focus on ADHA, where Tim Gutwald serves as general counsel and chief compliance officer. Mentavi diagnoses patients in all 50 states and treats patients virtually in 40, with an office at The Bridge.

Gutwald shares the benefits of being part of The Bridge community — "They make it very easy to move in, to get ingrained in the community. It's not just, 'here's your space' — it's an introduction to other people, other companies in a similar field or stage and then obviously they have other resources to help with marketing or any other number of issues."

The incubator ecosystem has also connected Gutward to solutions for many of the common challenges startups face, like finding capital to grow and expand. Gutwald says the educational and collaborative events at The Bridge have helped him and his team network and learn about how to grow and maintain the business while navigating regulatory and industry hurdles, a worsening medication shortage, and uncertainty around online prescriptions.

Successful medical startups in Grand Rapids share some common traits, as McGregor observes, "Entrepreneurs with a novel approach to addressing issues often do quite well. But it's so much more about getting all the issues wrapped together in a story. The power of narrative is super important in this space."
Photo by Tyler Herbstreith
Statewide influence and collaboration

"The Bridge" is not just a local phenomenon but part of a broader statewide effort to advance health care innovation. 

Grand Rapids is making a significant statewide impact in health care innovation, particularly through Michigan State University's Innovation Park. This hub, encompassing facilities like the Grand Rapids Research Center and the Doug Meijer Medical Innovation Building, is at the forefront of medical research in areas such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Additionally, the Park’s completion is projected to generate an economic impact of approximately $339 million annually and create over 2,000 jobs, indicating its substantial contribution to Michigan’s economy.

Enhancing this impact are key tenants like Perrigo and BAMF Health, who are advancing health care through innovative technologies and treatments. Coupled with a growing emphasis on digital health solutions, including mobile health centers and telehealth services, Grand Rapids is actively shaping the future of health care in Michigan.

Medical startups in numbers

The medical startup ecosystem in Grand Rapids is not just thriving qualitatively but also quantitatively. The region has seen a significant uptick in health care startups, with a noticeable impact on the local economy and employment.

According to the City of Grand Rapids Annual Report for 2022, the city has witnessed remarkable growth in its health care startup sector, evidenced by a 35% increase in private investment between 2021 and 2022, totaling $245 million. This surge reflects strong investor confidence and a thriving business environment. Additionally, investments in business neighborhoods saw a 40% hike, amounting to nearly $1 million, demonstrating the city's expanding support for local businesses, including health care startups.

Simultaneously, the city has experienced substantial economic development, with approximately $6 billion in construction since 2021, partly driven by the health care sector's growth. Complementing these trends is a $42 million commitment to minority, women and micro local business enterprises.

Health care innovations emerging from Grand Rapids have an impact well beyond local and state boundaries. Investment in health care startups and a commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem in Grand Rapids can lead to new medical solutions and technologies. These innovations, particularly in digital health, telemedicine and personalized medicine, can transform patient care worldwide, making it more efficient, accessible and personalized.

As these startups grow and their innovations gain global recognition, they can play a vital role in shaping the future of health care delivery and treatment globally.

Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 25 years of experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable microfarm in West Michigan.

This series seeks to highlight tech organizations and employers throughout Greater Grand Rapids that are delivering innovative programs and addressing talent pipeline challenges and seeking to develop, attract and retain quality talent in West Michigan. This series is underwritten by The Right Place.
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