Business
1:59 pm
Thu April 26, 2012

"Start Garden" to use $15 million to grow ideas into businesses

A Grand Rapids entrepreneur is launching a $15 million venture capital fund to turn people’s ideas into successful businesses.

The DeVos family is backing the fund, called Start Garden. Richard DeVos started Amway, now the world’s largest direct selling company.

Rick DeVos is his grandson and an entrepreneur himself (Spout.com, ArtPrize, 5x5 night). He says his family is backing Start Garden “because we’ve seen firsthand the ramifications of an entrepreneur being able to get an idea into the world.”

DeVos says Start Garden’s mission is to try to grow as many ideas as possible into new businesses with money and mentoring.

“Start Garden creates the field and brings the water. We ask the people to bring their ideas and plant them. And we ask existing businesses in our region to become the farmers. Because we believe the soil is fertile for business here and we can be the best place for somebody to have an idea and run with it,” DeVos said.

Initially, Start Garden will award $5,000 to two different ideas each week. The folks at Start Garden will chose one idea and the public will pick the other through an online vote. The ideas can come from anywhere, but people have to agree to come to Grand Rapids within 90 days to present what they did with that money.

Later, Start Garden will choose the most promising projects and invest between $20,000 and $500,000 in the hopes of turning them into businesses. DeVos says they’re not trying to get people to relocate to Grand Rapids, but these bigger projects will need to show they’re committed to being “tied-in” to the Michigan economy and will bring value to it.

DeVos hopes Start Garden will create new innovations and businesses that will help solve problems in Michigan and beyond.

“The world needs new innovations. It’s a pain we feel deeply in Michigan but it’s not unique to us. We have some pretty wicked problems; where will the innovations come from? Who are the super smart people who will decide which innovation we need?” DeVos posed to an audience of about 60 people at the launch in Grand Rapids Thursday.

Entrepreneur Erik Loehfelm is excited to see what grows out of the fund.

“Out of the you know, thousands of ideas that they will curate and that the public will curate, there’s got to be a few winners in there right? There has to be,” Loehfelm said.

Loehfelm, an executive at Universal Mind, has agreed to mentor people with projects in Start Garden. So has Steelcase, 5/3rdBank, Amway, Cascade Engineering, and the Jandernoa family.

Loehfelm and his business partner Joe Johnston are also hoping to grow their own new project, One Second Epic. It’s a smartphone application that mashes together one-second videos from different people at one event into a single video of the experience.

DeVos says more information on the higher investment levels will come out in June. He says the $15 million will be “deployed” in the next three to five years.