In Mich., Entrepreneurs Pitch Ideas for $5,000 Award
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
What could you do for your community with $5,000?
Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reports on two West Michigan entrepreneurs who are trying to revive the region's economy and its spirits, one good idea at time.
LINDSEY SMITH: Grand Rapids, like most Michigan cities, is struggling to overcome the recession, to diversify its manufacturing-reliant economy, to grow new businesses.
Rick DeVos and Bill Holsinger-Robinson think they can help. They're sitting in the bright, trendy, ivory-green offices of Pomegranate Studios, a business incubator they founded two years ago. Entrepreneurship is in the DeVos family's DNA. His grandfather started Amway, one of the world's largest direct selling businesses.
On the last Tuesday of each month, Pomegranate Studios offers five people five minutes to pitch their idea for a business, an organization, art project, anything really. A panel of judges then awards up to $5,000 to those with the best ideas.
Bill Holsinger-Robinson says they want to give people a platform for their ideas to grow.
Mr. BILL HOLSINGER-ROBINSON (President, Pomegranate Studios): 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 the community.
SMITH: The two were inspired by similar projects popping up all over the U.S. The Austin Foundation, Sunday Soup and TED conferences have been operating similar programs for years. They all offer micro grants to help fund grassroots projects and ideas. DeVos says 5X5 Night is just one way to build a culture of entrepreneurship in West Michigan.
Mr. RICK DeVOS (President, Pomegranate Studios): 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, nonprofits, whatever that can be really transformative.
SMITH: 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's picked up from people who want to help him create the smartphone 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 the cash.
Mr. JOSH LEO: You know, the money is just the start, especially for my project. It's people power. It's time and, you know, just passion and interest.
SMITH: Another idea that won some money was Dave's Great GREEN Tomato Cage. During his pitch, Dave Schemmel shows off his prototype, a really sturdy adjustable tomato cage made out of natural fiber.
Mr. DAVE SCHEMMEL: At the end of the season, fold it up, store it. (Unintelligible) baseball bat. Don't like it that way, flatten it out and store it.
SMITH: Tomorrow night, five different people will present their ideas. Among them is Nicole Infante.
Ms. NICOLE INFANTE: I didn't think anybody would actually think my idea was a good idea, and so I'm very excited that out of all those ideas, they picked me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: 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 tomorrow night, she'll likely warm to the idea.
For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.