Gaining Momentum step-by-step

May 28, 2010
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Refinement through increased flexibility has made a difference in the sophomore year of the 12-week program offered by Momentum, a local venture firm that provides support to Web-based technology start-ups.

“We learned so much from working with the three companies last year — what programming works. We shook a lot of creative people out of the trees to sign up for mentor gigs and providing different resources, which has been really fantastic,” said Bill Holsinger-Robinson, executive director of Momentum.

“The programming is a heck of a lot tighter than it was last year. I say tighter, but I’m going to say flexibility, too. We’ve really added some flexibility into the programming.”

For example, Holsinger-Robinson said, there’s the “book club” that meets to discuss “The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything,” by Guy Kawasaki.

Companies selected for this year’s Momentum program include:

Name: Jai Place
Location: Grand Rapids
Founders: Al and Jess Tomaz
Description: “A global aggregator of information, products, services, media and experiences for the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability market.”

Name: Varsinet
Location: Grand Rapids
Founders: Ryan Vaughn
Description: “A sports blog network dedicated specifically to serving high school sports.”

Name: e-Simulations
Location: Holland
Founders: Christian Spielvogel and Khusro Kidwai
Description: “A developer, licensor and host of Web-based, multiplayer role-playing simulations and social e-textbooks for secondary and higher education markets.”

Name: TerraPerks
Location: Ann Arbor
Founders: Mary Lemmer, Rajesh Nerlikar and Ben Routson
Description: A rewards program that motivates households to reduce energy consumption.

“Every single week, we go through a new chapter,” he said. “We’ve got one of our mentors facilitating that dialogue. We’re using the book as a great opportunity to talk about where the companies are, but we’re also bringing in somebody to talk about that content, in particular.”

The current program started with an application process last December. Candidates were trimmed down to four companies, and the 12-week intensive kicked off May 13 and ends Aug. 13.

During that time, the four selected companies receive $20,000 to cover living and development costs for their time in West Michigan. They also are given incubation space and a mentor, and are connected to local business leaders, lawyers and investors. The last day of the program is called “Demo Day” when the companies pitch their ideas to potential investors.

“The program in and of itself is an opportunity to help these entrepreneurs get some time for focus. The other part, a large part of the investment, is the community’s time in participating. There’s a real sense that what ends up being created here is a little intellectual capital,” said Holsinger-Robinson. “We’re providing some actual capital, but by the resources that are being pulled in … we are connecting these companies with people who have been there and done that and are real leaders within their industry that just happen to be in our backyard.”

Ryan Vaughn of Grand Rapids-based Varsinet is one of Momentum’s current participants.

The model Vaughn is working on brings unique websites to high school athletic departments to promote their sports via pictures, social media, video and journalism.

Vaughn has high praise for Momentum’s program.

“It’s amazing the resources that are available and the doors that get opened, just by virtue of the people you are working with. It’s incredible to be able to bounce your ideas off people who have been there and done that,” said Vaughn.

Though Momentum provides support for the start-ups, Vaughn feels the program also promotes the West Michigan community.

“It’s all part of this larger initiative to make West Michigan a hub for innovative business,” he said. “I think this is a part of it, and it shows the kind of dedication that (the Momentum team is) putting into this. They’re dedicating a lot of time and energy to helping us succeed.”

E-Simulations, another Momentum participant, mixes the worlds of social media and textbooks for higher education learning. It replaces the sidebar content of textbooks with role playing and other activities that are done online. 

The e-Simulation cofounders are two notable professors in their fields but they are new to starting a business.

“My partner and I, Khusro Kidwai, are both academic insiders and are sort of the tops of our field, but we’ve never owned a start-up company,” said cofounder Christian Spielvogal, Ph.D, of Hope College.

“In just a few short days, we’ve really learned the benefits of pitching, developing the business plan and prototyping. This is really a remarkable program with a very talented group of Momentum advisors and mentors who … are invested in us as people. I think this is such a great compliment to West Michigan.”

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