Lessons from Grand Rapids: Start Garden

TheMetropreneur.com visited regional neighbor Grand Rapids for the CEOS for Cities annual conference last week. While there, we checked in on three different entrepreneurial/incubator facilities and programs to find out how other cities are nurturing small business growth and innovation.

The beauty of Start Garden lies in the simplicity of its mission — to invest $5,000 into a new idea each week and help those ideas blossom into larger projects or startup businesses.

With ideas and projects ranging from soda companies to robotic snow plows to pet products to wedding planning tools, Start Garden could be best described as an “idea incubator” as it doesn’t have the tech/app-centric focus of similar types of programs in other cities.

“We started to think about how we could get as many business experiments up and running in as many different verticals as possible in a very short amount of time,” explains Paul Moore, Communication Director at Start Garden. “Our team had experience running a sort of ‘me too’ incubator patterned after Y-Combinator and Tech Stars, and those types of incubators are designed for recent college grads to sleep on couches and eat ramen while they code a website and launch a company. But we became skeptical that a Silicon Valley style incubator would work well in Grand Rapids, Michigan.”

Thus, in April 2012, Start Garden was born. In less than two years the program has funded over 150 ideas with over $4 million of its original $15 million fund. In additional to seed capital, the idea creators are given access to mentorship and networking through regional partners that include Amway, Whirlpool, Steelcase, Fifth Third Bank, Wolverine and many others.


Visitors to Grand Rapids can find Start Garden located in the heart of Downtown, sandwiched between the Van Andel Arena and the Grand Rapids Art Museum. This walkable area is home to several other business incubators, colleges and civic institutions.

“It only seemed natural that if we would make financial capital extremely accessible, then we should also make social capital extremely accessible,” says Moore. “We moved into the most centrally located vacant storefront we could find — about 5,000 square feet — and turned it into a meeting ground for entrepreneurs and professionals in the business community. We imagined a scenario where somebody getting off at the Amtrak station could ask where the startup activity was in town, and everybody would point our direction.”

Beyond the day-to-day development work at Start Garden, Moore says that part of the incubator’s mission is to create a better national brand for Grand Rapids.

“On a cultural level, we have aspirations for this city to be known as the best place to take risks,” he proclaims. “And we want a strong culture of investors beyond Start Garden who adopt our behavior of aggressively funding those risks.”

For more information, visit www.startgarden.com.

Photos by Walker Evans.