Economic Development, Law, and Small Business & Startups

Law firm commits $1M in free legal services

June 29, 2016
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Matt Bower, Varnum
Matt Bower. Courtesy Varnum

A law firm is committing $1 million over the next five years in free legal services for Michigan startups.

Varnum of Grand Rapids made the announcement on Friday, saying it is celebrating the completion of its first $1 million commitment, which it made in 2011 through its MiSpringboard program.

MiSpringboard has so far helped more than 220 emerging companies in over 60 communities across Michigan.

Detroit and Ann Arbor have the highest concentration of clients with 33 each, followed by 24 in Grand Rapids, 10 in Kalamazoo, six in Novi and five in Battle Creek. The rest are spread across the state, including five in the Houghton/Hancock area of the Keweenaw Peninsula and two in Marquette.

Two West Michigan businesses Varnum’s legal team has provided services for are Oxx Products of Grand Rapids, which makes the Oxx’s Coffeebox, and Farmhaus Cider, a hard cider maker operating in Hudsonville.

To be considered for the MiSpringboard program, clients are referred by partner organizations including business incubators, SmartZones, angel investors, state agencies, universities and entrepreneur programs from around the state.

Although services are tailored to fit clients’ needs, typical legal services for MiSpringboard clients include company formation and operating agreements, employment agreements, vendor contracts, trademark work and licensing agreements.

“When we started the program, there was no data to suggest how well used it would be and no clear pathway to connect with the entrepreneurs who might make use of it,” said Dave Khorey, Varnum chairman. “We just knew that despite the downturn in the economy, the startup community seemed to be expanding.”

Harvey Koning, a Varnum attorney who works with clients in the MiSpringboard program, said today there are many more resources available to entrepreneurs, including funding sources at earlier stages and more incubator and accelerator programs.

“For example, valuable resources like Start Garden did not even exist five years ago,” he said.

Varnum pointed out that pitch competitions are held almost weekly across the state, and nearly every large community in Michigan is home to a business incubator, SmartZone or other organization that nurtures new businesses.

Ryan Gourley, director of TechArb Student Incubator, run jointly by The Center for Entrepreneurship and the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, said two of the greatest needs his teams regularly identify are “assistance with legal issues such as incorporation and intellectual property protection” and “funding to cover legal services.”

“MiSpringboard is a one-of-a-kind program that addresses those needs in one fell swoop,” Gourley said.

Matt Bower, a Varnum attorney whose practice focuses on emerging companies and who works extensively with clients in the MiSpringboard program, credits emerging technology as a driving force in the growth of the startup industry.

He predicts the industry will continue its growth trajectory thanks to several emerging technologies.

“One big change has been the emergence of the Internet of things, or IOT companies, companies that deploy sensors in the physical world to collect and exchange data through a software platform,” Bower said. “Software companies are increasingly in the hardware and manufacturing business as well. The next phase is analytics — crunching that massive pool of data.”

Another growth area has to do with advances in 3D printing.

“It's getting much cheaper, and the market is just getting started,” Bower said. “It will be fascinating to see how it shapes the industrial, biomedical and consumer products (industries) in the next three to five years.”

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