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Wednesday, 10 April 2013 17:19

Focus shifts to collaboration, removing barriers for entrepreneurs

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Seth Starner, manager of business innovation at Amway, pictured at GRid70 Seth Starner, manager of business innovation at Amway, pictured at GRid70 PHOTO: Joe Boomgaard

It’s undeniable that the emphasis on entrepreneurship in Grand Rapids is on the rise.

But along with that culture shift of valuing growing young companies, many entrepreneurs have also embraced a much different view of their rivals. In many respects, the traditional notion of competition has given way to smart collaboration.

For proof, look no further than the many new tech startups, unique co-working environments, design-centered collaborations and a crop of creative professionals partnering with one another in the city.

“It’s been like collaboration on steroids,” said Shorouq Almallah, operations director for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) at Grand Valley State University, referring to the shifting attitudes in the Grand Rapids startup and business communities.

Almallah said CEI currently is involved on two main paths, what she characterized as “matching needs with resources …on the talent development side,” as well as accelerating commercial and professional entrepreneurship through ventures such as the Grand Rapids SmartZone, which CEI is managing.

The university also offers business plan and business pitch competitions to encourage and help support a new generation of entrepreneurs, who also find many other community resources available to them, such as Rick DeVos’ Start Garden fund that also pairs entrepreneurs with mentors to help turn ideas into viable companies.

Increasingly, young companies are looking for spaces that are conducive to collaboration. As a result, several co-working spaces are now scattered around the downtown area. They offer open spaces designed for freelance workers or people in the process of creating startups, where the time is not right for lengthy leases on office space.

Based on a membership model, these co-working spaces allow workers to rent furnished space with a variety of options and allow for a more communal work environment. Due to a cross-pollination of entrepreneurs, they are also blurring the lines of traditional business competition.

Bill Holsinger-Robinson, the former executive director of ArtPrize who helped found TEDx Grand Rapids, is partnering to open HUB Grand Rapids as part of a global, coworking franchise.

HUB has coworking spaces on five continents and has operations in six American cities, not counting the as-yet unopened space in Grand Rapids. For the local franchise operation, Holsinger-Robinson said he and business partner Steve Frazee have a direct collaboration with the San Francisco-based venture.

Holsinger-Robinson believes the partnership could have a large-scale impact with local companies, which will be able to tap into the same ideas and concepts as their peers in the Bay Area or Silicon Valley.

Holsinger-Robinson explained that the idea for a HUB franchise actually sprung from events like TEDx that he helped put on.

“These amazingly talented groups of people would get together to work on a project and they would produce an amazing outcome and then they would split up,” Holsinger-Robinson said. “They would come back together to work in a different form. …They’re always scratching for places to work. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a more formal place for all of that stuff to happen?”

The HUB is intended to have the look and feel of a trendy Silicon Valley startup work environment. It is designed to be more of a gathering spot for entrepreneurs from a variety of industries to work together or separately, as the situation dictates, he said.

While coworking spaces like The HUB, The Factory, and East Grand Rapids’ 654 Croswell are geared toward small startup companies or freelance workers who are sick of working at coffee shops or from home, some of the region’s biggest companies have also recently latched on to the philosophy, creating GRid70 in the middle of downtown Grand Rapids.

The project involves Amway, Meijer, Steelcase, and Wolverine World Wide, and each maintains a workforce in the building at 70 Ionia SW.

“GRid70 is coworking for big companies, in the sense that it’s providing a space …for the organizations that they can come down and use for the types of meetings that don’t happen as well on a corporate campus,”said Seth Starner, manager of business innovation consulting for Amway.

Starner said most of the people who work at GRid70 come from disciplines including design, innovation and long-term strategy.

While having employees from West Michigan’s largest corporations working under one roof is a non-traditional idea, Starner believes it has had positive results for all those involved in the project.

Starner acknowledges there are legal issues, mostly in terms of intellectual property, with different companies — even those that don’t directly compete with each other — working under one roof. However, he said that there are agreements in place to avoid compromising situations.

“GRid70 is fundamentally open innovation for big companies,” Starner said. “It allows me to share ideas and think about problems with people outside of my industry, but I’m not concerned about (intellectual property) or other legal issues. …That’s the whole premise. It’s a meaningful and positive way to get outside perspective and still keep integrity.”

These days, Grand Rapids’ entrepreneurship focus is commonly thought to be more geared toward industries such as technology and graphic design. But the retail segment has been a bit of a problem in the central business district: Many shops big and small have come and gone from storefronts in the downtown area. Most recently, independent bookseller Schuler Books & Music shut the doors on its downtown location.

That closure was a reminder that even as the economy has started to come back, some businesses in the retail sector have continued to struggle.

Enter Rockford Construction Co., whose principals wanted to try a different approach to encourage more sustainable urban retail development.

When MoDiv — formally, The Shops at Monroe Center & Division — opened on the first day of ArtPrize 2011, developer Rockford Construction Co. saw the opportunity to transform the retail environment in downtown Grand Rapids, said Mike Mraz, the firm’s vice president of real estate development.

“What’s inherent with opening a retail shop is a lot of risk,” Mraz said. “We went out and developed this space in a way to allow small retailers to open up the doors quickly, efficiently and in a sensitive manner.”

While MoDiv has the look of a small, downtown shopping center, its concept is hardly similar to that of Woodland Mall. Instead, MoDiv falls into the category of being a “retail incubator.” Mraz describes the tenants as being a “blend of startup companies, some established retailers that have previously had an online presence that wanted to open up an actual storefront, and then major retailers like Wolverine World Wide.”

“It’s a new concept to the downtown market, but it fits into the entrepreneurial concept,” he said.

What separates MoDiv from a traditional shopping center is primarily that the space is highly customizable, making it simple for new tenants to come in and try a new concept. Another lure for retailers: “one price for everything” rent, Mraz said.

“That allows (tenants) to focus on their retail operations,” he said.

In the year and a half that MoDiv has been open, one company – Vue Designs, a wedding dress designer – has already outgrown its space at the incubator. The business announced in January that it was moving to a larger location a couple of blocks away.

This blend of lifestyle, service and specialized businesses in downtown Grand Rapids — spurred on by various incubators and groups like Start Garden and CEI —are helping define the city’s entrepreneurial landscape, said GVSU’s Almallah.

Almallah sees all this cross-pollination and coworking as a healthy trend for the future of entrepreneurship in the downtown area.

“Nowadays, you really can’t start a business if you’re in that little bubble, scared to share your idea or scared that someone may steal your idea,” Almallah said. “Entrepreneurs and the support organizations are coming together to leverage all the resources to build a healthy environment.”

Read 4184 times Last modified on Tuesday, 16 April 2013 11:07

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