Start Garden, Emerge and Others Join Forces to Empower Entrepreneurs

By Jane Whitttington on July 25th, 2016 / Comments

Nothing is constant but change. That adage is certainly true in the world of business. In order to grow, business owners must be willing to evolve to meet changing marketplace needs and demands. That’s also true for entities that serve entrepreneurs. Now three previously separate organizations, Start Garden, Emerge and SmartZone are partnering under the name of Start Garden to empower entrepreneurs and grow the economic viability of the entire region.

Start Garden was founded in 2012 as a venture capital fund and catalyst. From 2012 to 2015, they funded 190 entrepreneurial ventures at $5,000 each. In addition, they invested between $20,000 and $50,000 in 68 separate startups and invested between $50,000 and $500,000 in 23 businesses.

Grand Rapids SmartZone was created in 2001 with the Van Andel Institute as its anchor. Now they are one of 17 throughout the state, all administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. SmartZones are essentially “technology parks” designed to encourage the growth of technology-related or research-oriented businesses.

Emerge served as a public-private partnership for 13 counties in West Michigan. Its function has been to serve as a “one-stop shop” for entrepreneurs at every stage of business development.

Now the functions previously separate have joined together to include, according to their website, the following:

  • “A for profit venture capital fund that continues to manage and invest into a portfolio of between 20-30 companies;
  • An ecosystem entity to bridge public and private efforts, for profit and non-profit, to align the entire region around what’s best for those seeking an opportunity to get a start in West Michigan;
  • A 501c3 not-for-profit (formerly known as Emerge West Michigan) to allow philanthropic dollars to converge with public dollars and private investment to most equitably serve all entrepreneurs looking to launch new businesses, from neighborhoods to the high tech sectors.”

Laurie Supinski, formerly with Emerge West Michigan, now with Start Garden, says, “I’d been working with the Newaygo County Economic Development Office in Newaygo, about 45 minutes north and west of Grand Rapids. Part of what I did was manage the Convention and Visitors Bureau and also worked on small business development in the area. Emerge was formed when the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce and several other entities received a grant to assist entrepreneurs in growing small businesses. They invited some area partners to become part of this group with the idea of developing a central point for small business owners to receive the assistance they needed. Our organization became part of that endeavor. As that three-year grant was winding down, it was determined that an effort be made to continue the work of the group on a broader regional basis. That in turn became Emerge which has now become part of Start Garden.”

She continues, “Regional Chambers of Commerce and city coalitions in places like Grand Rapids, Holland and Muskegon were involved in similar ventures. It made sense to bring all these groups together in one organization. I became the head of that new organization which encompassed the entire region. Initially, I worked to identify and bring together organizations throughout the 13 counties that comprise our region. We ended up partnering with about 60 different regional groups that have the same goal—helping entrepreneurs develop their businesses. We joined all of this in one place, a definitive website to link entrepreneurs to services.”

In 2016, Emerge, Start Garden and SmartZone merged into one organization with the goal of bringing together services offered throughout the region under one umbrella.

Supinski says, “One of the things we are doing now is collecting data and measuring entrepreneurial activity throughout the region. We want to know what works.”

She continues, “We will also be relaunching 5 X 5 Night.”

5 X 5 Nights give budding entrepreneurs the opportunity to present a five-minute pitch for their business idea. A panel of judges choses a winner from among the participants to receive a $5,000 grant to take their idea to the next level.

Supinski says, “As we begin this new round of 5 X 5, we will be going out to other communities, rather than holding them all in Grand Rapids as has been done in the past. Our first 5 X 5 will be at the end of July in Holland. In August, it will be at LINC, an organization bringing economic opportunity to the urban community.”

With these mergers and reorganizations, entrepreneurs will be able to more easily access multiple sources to help them develop their ideas and grow their businesses.

For more information about Start Garden and its various components, visit

About the Author

Jane Whitttington

Jane Whitttington

Jane Whitttington is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Grand Rapids. A Michigan native and Michigan State University grad, she enjoys reading, travel, politics and volunteering.