$5,000 for good ideas in Grand Rapids

Mar 29, 2011

Tonight two Michigan entrepreneurs will give away $5,000 in a competition devoted to creating buzz around good ideas. Rick DeVos and Bill Holsinger-Robinson are trying to help make the best ideas a reality.

On the last Tuesday of each month, Pomegranate Studios (a business incubator DeVos and Holsinger-Robinson founded in Grand Rapids two years ago) offers 5 people 5 minutes to pitch their idea for a business, an organization, art project, anything really.

A panel of 5 judges then awards up to five thousand dollars to those with the best ideas.

Bill Holsinger-Robinson says they want to give people a platform for their ideas to grow.

“The event is really less about the grant making and is more about people sharing ideas and then getting people to act on those ideas within a community.”

Unemployed “mercenary” chef Brian Gerrity’s underground supper club idea got the most money. He wants to offer a temporary venue where chefs don’t have to worry about normal constraints like food costs holding back their creativity.

 “Every chef has those dishes that just don’t work. They just don’t work and when we sit around and talk about them you know it’s always kind of this game of one-up-manship – ‘oh yeah well what about this dish? What if we did this? Well what if we did this?’ – and it grows to this point where it’s completely nonsensical. It doesn’t make sense in a restaurant, but it would be so fun to do for people.”

Benefits beyond the money

Holsinger-Robinson suspects even those who don’t win the cash will benefit from the process of fleshing out their idea.

“If in this process we can help those thinkers and dreamers connect with people who are you know more skilled on the execution side of things it means more cool stuff gets done in the city.”

Holsinger Robinson hopes the monthly event will make people more open to sharing their ideas and less afraid of rejection and failure. He thinks some people just need a little confirmation that they should go for their dreams. 

Josh Leo competed in the first “5x5 night” last month. He did not win $5,000, but the judges did award him $750.

At a party after the contest, Leo flashes the business cards he picked up from people who want to help him create the smart phone app he pitched. He imagines people downloading his ‘Grand Rapids walking tour app’ and spending an afternoon exploring downtown neighborhoods and learning the history of the city.

Leo says the contacts could prove better than cash.

“You know the money is just the start, especially for my project. It’s people power, its time and just, passion and interest.”

Inspiration from similar projects elsewhere in the U.S.

The Awesome Foundation, Sunday Soup, and TED conferences have been operating similar programs for years. They all offer micro-grants to help fund grass-roots projects and ideas.

DeVos says “5x5 night” is just one way to build a culture of entrepreneurship in West Michigan.

“I think the Midwest struggles with thinking very monolithically and kind of big about things and we lose sight of the individual and the power of the individual to create products, services, non-profits, whatever, that can be really transformative.”

Entrepreneurship is in DeVos’s family’s DNA. His grandfather started Amway – one of the world’s largest direct selling businesses.

Join the conversation during "5x5 night" in person, or online

Tonight, 5 different people will present their ideas. Among them is Nicole Infante.

“I didn’t think anyone would actually think my idea was a good idea and so I’m very excited that of all those ideas they picked me.”

Infante’s idea – without giving away too much – is a challenge to area chefs to come up with a signature sandwich tasty enough to put Grand Rapids on the culinary map.

Right now, Infante is unemployed and she’s never considered becoming an entrepreneur. But if she wins, she’ll likely warm to the idea.

The public is welcome to attend tonight’s “5x5 night”. It starts at 5p.m. at the Grand Rapids Arts Museum. You can stream it online live and check out the other pitches from the event last month at 5x5night.com.