Published in Economic Development

Start Garden, Spartan Innovations recommended as next SmartZone facilitators

BY Wednesday, June 09, 2021 01:15pm

GRAND RAPIDS — The city’s Local Development Finance Authority has recommended that Start Garden Inc. and Spartan Innovations L3C administer the Grand Rapids SmartZone business incubator through a collaborative approach.  

The LDFA on March 1 put out a request for proposals to run the business incubator, with the goal of bringing more diversity and equity among tech startups, as MiBiz previously reported. Both companies were also considered on their own; GRound Incubation Labs was also a part of the RFP process. A fourth company submitted a bid that did not meet the criteria in the RFP.


“All of the applicants went through a certain amount of scrutiny to really determine who would be the best in moving that (equity) work or improving their position to help move that work,” said LDFA board member Joe Jones, who was a member of the review committee and is also a Grand Rapids city commissioner.

Start Garden has administered the city’s business incubator program since April 2016, and its contract was up for renewal this year. The LDFA in January extended Start Garden’s contract for six months as the RFP process moved forward. The city commissioned Bethesda, Md.-based Regionerate LLC to oversee the selection process, which consisted of a seven-member review committee.

LDFA board members also voted to extend its contract with Regionerate for up to 90 days and approved $5,000 to continue work to determine whether both organizations would collaborate to oversee the city’s SmartZone. If both companies agree to collaborate, they would then submit a joint proposal to the LDFA board for consideration and final approval. 

East Lansing-based Spartan Innovations is a subsidiary of the MSU Foundation and is part of the MSU Innovation Center, which helps turn emerging technologies from Michigan State University researchers into businesses. 

The review committee recommended the collaborative approach to combine the strengths of both incubators. For Start Garden, that includes an intentional focus on equity and increasing a diverse pipeline of entrepreneurs and strong engagement with community organizations. The review committee said Start Garden’s weakest link is launching and scaling high-tech companies. 

Conversely, the committee cited Spartan Innovations’ qualifications as a technology incubator, but expressed concerns about its relative lack of experience in serving underrepresented entrepreneurs and a lack of diversity in leadership.

“It seems to me that the two organizations are somewhat complementary and each have strengths that make up for a deficiency in the other organization,” said SmartZone board member Hal Ostrow. 

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