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Friday, 02 March 2012 11:22

Grand Rapids SmartZone may get new administrator

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GRAND RAPIDS — The local authority charged with overseeing the Grand Rapids SmartZone incubator and accelerator wants to see more “churn” and better ROI from the life science companies that call the SmartZone home.

To help achieve that goal, the 12-member Grand Rapids Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA) in February issued a request for qualifications, inviting organizations to apply for the job of staffing and managing the Grand Rapids SmartZone.

Responding to the RFQ were two organizations already involved in the SmartZone: The Right Place Inc. — whose CEO, Birgit Klohs, is also the chairperson of the LDFA — and Grand Valley State University — whose VP of Administration and Finance, Jim Bachmeier, is the LDFA’s treasurer.

GVSU, through its West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative, currently manages the Grand Rapids SmartZone, which is housed at the Cook-DeVos Center.

Given the more than $1 billion in investments on the Medical Mile and the resulting increase in the number of potential partners in the SmartZone, the LDFA is looking at whether to change how the SmartZone is operated.

The LDFA sought requests for qualifications from organizations to administer the SmartZone, the first step toward possible changes. The RFQ was advertised in the Feb. 14 edition of the Grand Rapids Press.

“The mission of the Grand Rapids SmartZone is to support growth in new life science and medical device industry companies in Grand Rapids through accelerated technology commercialization,” according to a copy of the RFQ obtained by MiBiz.

In addition to managing the incubator’s operations and fulfilling the SmartZone’s reporting requirements, the RFQ calls for the development of a virtual incubator that would allow companies to use the SmartZone’s flex and wet lab space, as well as conference rooms and office space, on an as-needed basis. The RFQ also calls for the coordination of a Concierge Shared Services Network — a referral based system network to provide companies direct management expertise, legal advice, technology commercialization assistance and other seed-stage development help.

Kara WoodA “network model” for supporting companies based in the SmartZone would “bring our partners closer together to work in a network model to deliver services to our entrepreneurs and our partners,” said Kara Wood, director of economic development for the City of Grand Rapids. “We currently don’t have a strong functioning network of our service providers, so that will be the number one, critical piece this organization will be charged with.”

Other strategic priorities include identifying locations for growth and expansion of SmartZone clients in order to retain them in the Grand Rapids region as well as work to secure “landing pad” space for graduates.

The SmartZone — which stretches along Michigan Street, into downtown and up North Monroe Avenue — includes the fully occupied business incubator at the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences. The incubator is home to five young companies that employ 41 people, plus the WMSTI that works to support the tenants and build the life sciences sector in Grand Rapids.

While the facility is full, the authority overseeing the SmartZone would like to see more cycling of companies as some successfully commercialize new technology and graduate out of the incubator and others wait to move in.

“There are many more resources that ought to be working together to serve the entrepreneurs to churn more development out, more commercialization of technology, and that’s really what we are trying to get with this plan,” said Wood. “It’s great that our space on the fifth floor is full and we’re still working with entrepreneurs in the city, but we want to have a more robust churn rate so that we’re spinning out companies and commercializing technologies are a much higher rate.”

Since the SmartZone’s creation, Grand Rapids has seen Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine move to town, the expansion of the Van Andel Institute and significant growth in the local life sciences sector, Wood said.

“With all of these new services and new partners, we think we can be providing more outcomes. We want a better return on the investment,” said Wood, adding that the LDFA can accomplish that goal by better coordinating “all the usual suspects that have services that support entrepreneurial development in the city.”

Whatever the authority does, it will continue to contract with GVSU for space at the Cook-Devos Center to house the SmartZone’s business incubator, Wood said. The contact runs through 2018.

“This is really to analyze what’s currently going on and what has changed in the last 10 years and how to address it in our strategic plan going forward,” Wood said.

As chair of the LDFA, Klohs repeated the idea that it’s time to take inventory of what’s available.

Birgit Klohs“Life is changing so quickly in all phases and in all areas, and we, as any good organization needs to do, are taking a good look what have we accomplished and do we still have the right model in place?” Klohs said. “You just can’t go on autopilot in this day and age.”

At the same time, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. is delegating to the local level more control and responsibility for supporting SmartZones across the state, Wood said.

Established in 2002, and one of 11 in the state, the Grand Rapids SmartZone was set up to spur the formation of a cluster of startup businesses in life sciences, information technology and advanced manufacturing. The original partners in the SmartZone include the city, the Van Andel Institute, GVSU, Grand Rapids Community College and The Right Place Inc.

While GVSU replied to the RFQ, the whole process leaves the future of WMSTI uncertain, said Bachmeier, the university’s VP of administration and finance. A new organization to administer the SmartZone is “entirely possible,” he said.

GVSU’s response to the RFQ was submitted by Bachmeier and Kevin McCurren, executive director of the GVSU Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Bachmeier also serves a vice chairman of the LDFA and said that if a change in the SmartZone’s administration occurs, discussion on WMSTI’s future and adjusting the organization’s role will have to come afterward.

“Any real conversation about the future of WMSTI could very well wait,” he said.

Bachmeier agrees with the LDFA’s review and effort to get more organizations involved in the SmartZone beyond the founding partners.

“I wonder if five of us is enough,” he said.

Bachmeier also believes the SmartZone is a “little singularly focused” on life sciences and needs to put more attention to spurring formation of information technology and advanced manufacturing companies.

Related story: Right Place, GVSU outline visions for GR SmartZone

MiBiz Managing Editor Joe Boomgaard contributed to this report.

Read 2896 times Last modified on Sunday, 12 August 2012 12:03

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