GRAND RAPIDS — Downtown Grand Rapids is an amazing place these days, and I got just a tiny little peek at a few of the companies helping make it amazing Wednesday, Day Seven of the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s 2012 Spring Tech Tour.
From an veteran local IT company building applications for some of the world’s biggest corporations to a startup helping kids deal with asthma with an iPhone game to a health care playground that spawned it, West Michigan’s biggest city boasts an impressive tech lineup.
The day started with Karen Benson, director of innovation services for The Right Place Inc., the economic development agency for the 13-county West Michigan area, stretching from Allegan to Oceana counties along the lakeshore and moving inland from there.
So what does The Right Place mean by innovation services? “That means identifying second stage growth companies that are in manufacturing, primarily, that have new ideas for products and processes to remain globally competitive, to seek to connect them to funding and university research and resources, and in general, support and foster innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Benson will also spend part of her day working on social entrepreneur Rick DeVos’ Start Garden project, in which there will be regular winners for $5,000 in startup money, with one prize picked by experts and another by the public online.
The Right Place is also fostering a regular group meeting between four large West Michigan employers — Whirlpool, Bissell, Steelcase and Faurecia — to meet regularly on advanced materials, with the assistance of Michigan’s University Research Corridor schools, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University.
From breakfast at the Sundance Grill, it was off to the Spectrum Health Innovation Center, where its president, Kristine White, mulled whether it should be called a lair or a playground.
Actually, this former loading dock for a printing company, with its beautiful vintage wood and brick walls, is both. It’s where Grand Rapids’ giant Spectrum Health organization, the former Butterworth and Blodgett hospitals, goes to dream up new ideas in patient care and treatment.
White said the health care environment is so intense for providers that “we don’t expect them to drive care to a new level while we’re delivering it. But here, we can think about what if, what if we took a process and did just the opposite, or cut it in half, or whatever.
Among the innovations dreamed up so far at the center, which opened last year, is the asthma treatment technology company Ideomed — more about them in a minute — and advances like a new basin used to cleanse the leg after it’s been in an accident, a better idea for calming kids getting CAT scans, a better way to clean sensitive emergency sprinkler heads, and a better device for inserting a small video camera down a patient’s throat. The center has two full-time employees.
White said the center has developed a “curriculum for innovaton” based on the ideas generated by nurses during her time as a nurse on the floor. “I’m a nurse, and I think nurses are the best problem solvers,” she said. “They can figure out a solution for anything. They see what’s in place, what doen’t work, and what can be done to make it better. We ask, why not? How would that work? And what we do is teach them to go out and look. Every Post-It note is a clue.”
White also said she’s created an “eye roll free place to explore ideas” where no ideas are allowed to be ridiculed or put down.
Just down the street, I visited a Spectrum spinoff called Ideomed founded in 2010 to deliver a program called Abriiz (pronounced “a breeze,” get it?) to help kids stick with their asthma medication plan.
The startup brought in Grand Rapids serial entrepreneur Keith Brophy in 2011 to help grow what they say is the world’s first pediatric asthma management tool.
Asthma costs the United States $56 billion a year and affects 300 million people worldwide. The cost of childhood asthma alone is an extra $8,800 a year for an insurance company.
Ideomed will sell the Abriiz program to insurers and employers, who will offer it to their members in order to connect the patient with caregivers like parents and medical professionals. The application will be “gamified” to play like a video game to ensure regular medication compliance with its young audience. The application will also give doctors access to patient history, like the frequency and severity of attacks, medication taken and lung flow.
Early trials were extremely promising. Of those on Abriiz, there was a 62 percnet decrease in emergency room visits and a 52 percent decrease in patients agreeing with the statement “asthma keeps you from leading a normal life.”
The idea for the company was part of a collaborative group process at the Spectrum Innovation Center. It’s also hiring, having just brought on board account manager Doug Landman, whose daughter has been fighting asthma for 13 of her 15 years.
More at www.abriiz.com.
From Ideomed it was across the Grand River to the city’s rapidly redeveloping near West Side and a company called Open Systems Technologies.
OST has been around 15 years, but two years ago it moved into a former Druecke Game Co., a manufacturer of board games like cribbage and backgammon. There, it occupies three 5,000-square-foot stories, with another 9,000 square feet being held unremodeled for expansion space.
OST just hired employee No. 100 and has also opened its Ann Arbor office. CEO Dan Behm said that’s where some of the company’s strongest growth is concentrated.
The building’s spectacular first floor features a huge kitchen area as an entrance. Behm and co-founder James VanderMey say that’s because so many people love to hang out in the kitchen and feel most at home there. There’s also a large exercise room with locker rooms and showers. (Don’t get me started on companies that encourage employees to exercise during the day and then refuse to provide a shower. Just how bad do you want the office to smell by close of business?) On the second floor are offices for managed services, marketing and sales, and on the third floor, application development, virtual IT officers and data center systems. Not to mention something I’m insanely jealous of — a huge wooden shuffleboard table. (The good ones http://www.bmigaming.com/games-sports-shuffleboards.htm are a $5,000 investment in morale.)
OST believes this terrific space lets its employees produce terrific work, and I saw several examples. One really cool example was a data mining and business intelligence system for Johnson Controls that lets college students at the University of Massachusetts determine how they’re doing on saving energy in dormitories, with the information presented on flat screen TVs in an engaging, easy-to-understand format.
“We do complexity really, really well,” VanderMey said. “We solve hard problems for large organizations with a cross-disciplined skill set.” Examples include a provisioning system for a company offering cloud services that cut the time it took to get new technology out from weeks to hours and helping large health care organizations mine data in electronic medical records systems. “We’re taking the principals of computational physics and analytics to medical data,” he said.
Well, after 15 minutes with the brilliant VanderMey, me and my average brain and stupid little humanities degree could only say one thing: durr. Unfortunately, in the next interview, I walked right into another conference room with a guy just as smart — Barry D. Nowak, CEO of Syzygy Biotech. (You know, “Syzygy” is really fun to type! Syzygy! Szyzgy! Durr duh derp.) Anyway, Nowak and his band of scientists are hard at work building a company out of proteins that copy DNA, where a million dollars’ worth of inventory could fit easily in a pop bottle.
OK, first, the name — Syzygy. It’s defined as a straight-line connection of three celestial bodies, according to Merriam-Webster.com.
“We named the company that primarily because we’re nerds, but there are also three different proteins we’ve manufactured, three markets we want to reach — education, research and diagnostics — and we’ve built the company around three principles, attracting the best people, having the highest purpose, and making a good payback,” Nowak said. “So that’s three groups of threes.”
Oh my God. So should it be Syzygy Syzygy Syzygy? Or Syzygy cubed? Or am I just sleep-deprived from the Tech Tour?
No matter. Nowak kept the discussion lively. His company’s proteins “are analogous to toner in a copier, but rather than making copies of documents, we make copies of DNA. We can go from one strand of DNA to a billion. That DNA can be used to determine food safety — are your cows mad? Does the bird have the flu? Is this the bad strain of E.coli? Or it cam be used for organism detection — Is the Asian carp here? Who’s your daddy? Did you do the crime? … Or it can be used for medical diagnosis: How much cancer was removed by the procedure? How effective was the genetic therapy for Alzheimer’s?”
Nowak said his company will cut both the price and the time required for DNA analysis soon, and the company hopes to be fully supported by revenue by September.
The company was founded by Nowak and five partners — two of them his college roommates, one his brother and another a classmate. Together the five have 14 college degrees, 12 of them from Michigan colleges, “and our wives have even more. That’s my nerd herd.”
The company has seven employees now, with eight intern openings. Nowak said there’s ample room for the company’s near-term growth at the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative’s Michigan Street incubator, in the top floor of Grand Valley State University’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences. It offers warm and cold rooms, tissue culture laboratories, a sterilization area, a radio-isotope room, a microscopy suite, a specialized instrumentation room, a cell and molecular biology laboratory, hazardous waste disposal, storage and more.
More at www.syzygy.com.
Also visiting WMSTI for GLITR’s Tech Tour stop was Trevor Rolph, a senior at Grand Valley State University in product design and manufacturing engineering, with a minor in biomedical engineering.
He’s working on a “sip and puff” lawn mower for quadriplegic men, in order to get them out of the house and feel like they’re working in the yard again. More at this link. http://www.wwmt.com/news/features/positively-michigan/stories/vid_8.shtml?wap=0&.
After graduation, he wants to work for a larger medical device company. Attention larger medical device companies: Please keep him in Michigan.
As for the Venture Center overall, director Richard Cook said it’s currently 97 percent occupied, although some of its tenents may “graduate” to their own space soon. An effort to create a second incubator, on West Fulton Street a little over a mile from the Cook-DeVost center, fizzled, and it’s not being used.
The attraction to the Michigan Street incubator, Cook said, is that it’s in a state Smart Zone, offers more than $1 million of shared equipment, and has easy access to the faculty and staff of Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile area.
More at www.wmsti.org.
And so my visit to Grand Rapids ended with a short hop towards Kalamazoo, Thursday’s visit. We’re in the home stretch now and I can’t wait to see what’s up in the Zoo!
Be sure to listen afternoons on WWJ Newsradio 950 for special reports on the GLITR 2012 Spring Tech Tour. And check out photos from the Tech Tour road at http://detroit.cbslocal.com/photo-galleries/2012/05/11/glitr-spring-tech-tour-2012/#photo-323016.