GRAND RAPIDS — The formation of a new support system to foster entrepreneurship in West Michigan severs what had been a direct link between higher education and the venture capital community.
With Grand Valley State University exiting its roles as administrator of the Grand Rapids SmartZone district and overseer of the GR Current business incubator, the university plans to find its new place in the broader community of entrepreneurs.
While its exact role has yet to be specified, university officials hope that its existing curriculum can continue to create a pipeline of students looking to establish companies in the region, said Kevin McCurren.
McCurren, the executive director of the Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at GVSU’s Seidman College of Business, told MiBiz the university needs to find its way as part of a “new ecosystem.” That comes as SG Ecosystem Inc., a nonprofit affiliate of venture capital fund Start Garden LLC, has stepped in to operate the SmartZone.
“It’s still to be defined,” McCurren said of what roles GVSU may take in the coming months as part of the so-called entrepreneur ecosystem.
Previously, GVSU managed a multi-part organization that included pitch competitions, an accelerator and a business incubator, and sought to create a pipeline of students to fill the ranks of startups in the region.
“Our students have done well with that link,” McCurren said. “Very few places in the state had that direct connection. … There are other ways to do it.”
While the SmartZone — a state-run form of tax incremental financing aimed at assisting technology companies — will continue, McCurren said he’s “concerned” that the business incubation program may sunset under Start Garden.
Start Garden COO Mike Morin told MiBiz that its nonprofit arm is engaged in ongoing conversations with the Grand Rapids Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA) and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) regarding a grant that funds the program.
“We have not reached a definitive conclusion,” Morin said in an email.
BUILDING A PIPELINE
While it is letting go of some programming, GVSU continues to play a part in entrepreneur training and education. However, the university aims to refine its role and continue filling the pipeline for startup companies in West Michigan, McCurren said.
“Education plays a strong role feeding the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Morin said. “The vision for Grand Rapids is an ecosystem that (is) led by the entrepreneurs. In addition to that, we are taking a longer, 20-year perspective, which means we need to bring new talent into the community. We see GVSU and CEI identifying these future entrepreneurial leaders, encouraging and supporting them.”
GVSU believes it can accomplish at least some of the goals Morin outlined just through its traditional entrepreneurial curriculum.
“There’s one thing that universities have and that’s talent,” McCurren said. “Along with capital, talent is probably one of the most important resources you need for any entrepreneurial system. Our talent tends to be a little bit rawer and a little bit greener, but it’s still the talent that will create new companies going forward.”
Underscoring the need to train young talent, GVSU gives students a firsthand look into business.
For example, students in an entrepreneurial studies class taught by McCurren spent the majority of the semester analyzing various parts of the business model for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit environmental activist group.
Last month, MiBiz observed a session in which three groups of students pitched WMEAC staff on three different areas of the nonprofit’s mission: improving and rebranding its rain barrel program, assisting commercial and residential builders with environmental code compliance and bolstering the organization’s membership via a marketing campaign.
Jon Helmrich, WMEAC’s director of operations and business development, told MiBiz after the presentations that the organization will talk over the next few months about the students’ recommendations and how to implement them.
While many of the recommendations offered by the students merely confirmed action items WMEAC executives had previously discussed, their outside validation proved helpful, Helmrich said.
“We believe strongly that nonprofits need to have entrepreneurial spirit for their sustainability,” Helmrich said. “WMEAC is 50 years old, but we’re more vital than ever as part of Michigan’s blue and green economy.”
For McCurren, the class and the project structure — which also included work with Spectrum Health — are successful because of the hands-on interaction and experience the students obtain from working with the partners. Having accountability to the partners GVSU works with plays an important role for the students, he said.
Moreover, in identifying real-life problems and offering solutions, students gain the real-world skills they’ll need to use after graduation, McCurren added.
“Maybe 10 to 20 percent of the ones coming out of the undergraduate program will have the potential to start a company, but those are the ones you want to continue,” McCurren said. “We need to make sure we have a platform for the students who are graduating. To me, there’s a chance they’ll be successful and there’s a chance they’ll fail. But even if they fail, we’ve created a talent pool that’s important for us to have in the region.”