Who Knew the Most Creative Seed Fund Was in Grand Rapids?

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They fund two ideas each week. They choose one, we/you choose the other.

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Grand Rapids is not a place that people associate with excitement. In complimenting the city's (incredible) local coffee roaster, MadCap, GQ managed to slip in this zinger, "Grand Rapids, Michigan, [was] a town once commonly referred to as 'Bland Rapids,' as if the official nickname, 'the Furniture City,' didn't convey a sufficient sense of white-breaditude."

Ideas and Entrepreneurs on the Leading Edge
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And yet, today, there we were standing in the brand-new offices of StartGarden, a local seed fund with the wildest model I've ever heard of. Every two weeks, the $15 million fund gives $5,000 to two new ideas. Here's the crazy part: while the StartGarden team picks one idea, you, that is to say, the community, pick the other one.

They've already funded dozens of companies and several outfits have received additional funding from the StartGarden coffer. To keep everyone honest, StartGarden seeds a little reputation capital, too, making the recipients of funds come back a few months later to present a public progress update. As of just a few days ago, those presentations take place in the fund's new downtown headquarters--a high-ceilinged corner gallery with exposed brick archways framing huge, street-level windows.

The rapidfire nature of the funding model means that ideas pour in constantly. There are 41 more ideas currently posted to the site, waiting to see if they'll get funded one way or the other. And obviously, there is still a lot more money to play with.

How's all this possible? 

Chalk it up to Rick DeVos, StartGarden's founder. He's the grandson of Richard DeVos, the multibillionaire founder of Amway, a company that's been known to be about as conservative as San Francisco is liberal. But when you think about it, is it really that many steps between Amway's "multi-level marketing" and the social media marketing that you see just about everywhere these days? Amway hit on the power of selling through networks, and now, just about everybody else agrees. 

Not that Rick DeVos is all that interested in the family business. He's fascinated, instead, by how he could get a city like Grand Rapids to be a place where new businesses germinate and grow. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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