OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. — At a Grand Opening Dec. 1, Ottawa County, Mich., announced the official kick-off of the Great Lakes Ag-Tech Business Incubator.
The Incubator, a non-profit corporation, will specialize in helping farmers and entrepreneurs turn their ag-tech machine, equipment or software ideas and inventions into successful businesses. “Most farmers are intuitive, can-do individuals who have innate abilities to solve farm problems with ingenious mechanical inventions,” said Mark Knudsen, Planning and Performance Improvement director. “These inventions can often be the foundation for a thriving business.”
The Incubator provides specialized assistance designed to propel start-up companies through business hurdles. These services include, but are not limited to, validating concepts, obtaining patents, developing markets, streamlining regulatory permits, developing financial plans, assembling management teams, obtaining business financing and developing supplier sustainability plans. In addition, farmers associated with the Incubator share their expertise with entrepreneurs to validate their ag-tech ideas, provide recommendations to improve new products and field test prototypes. Ottawa County is uniquely poised to test technology involving wireless broadband since it has built out high-speed wireless broadband throughout the county.
State Representative Joe Haveman also announced at the grand opening that the state has awarded $500,000 to support the innovative Ag-Tech Business Incubator. "Ottawa County has built something entirely unique for farmers and entrepreneurs,” said Rep. Haveman. “I am pleased to announce that the state will make a 3-year, $500,000 investment in this first of its kind incubator model to help develop businesses and jobs in the ag-technology sector.”
The state funding commitment will be in addition to funds that have been pledged by private sector sponsors and Member Counties. The investment by private sector sponsors includes cash contributions and in some cases discounted service rates which can reach values in the tens of thousands of dollars for clients. Sponsors include the following:
- Agriculture — Ottawa County Farm Bureau
- Banking — West Michigan Community Bank
- Energy Technology — Consumers Energy
- Financial Services — Rehmann
- Legal (Full Services) — Warner Norcross & Judd
- Legal (Intellectual Property) — The Watson Intellectual Property Group
- Software — BizStream
Additionally, the Incubator has created a Member County Partnership Program that allows other counties to benefit from the Incubator’s pool of technical experts, sponsor donations and business consultants at cost-effective rates. Barry County is the first county to sign-on as a Member County, but several other Michigan counties have also expressed interest in partnering with the Incubator.
Ottawa County also benefited from a partnership with the USDA, which provided a grant to complete a Market Needs and Feasibility Study for the Incubator. The study verified there were a significant number of entrepreneurs in the region with agricultural technology ideas who needed assistance to develop the ideas into businesses. “Ottawa County is pleased to have such strong partners in the private and public sectors,” said Board Chair Jim Holtrop. “This extensive collaboration will add to the dynamic nature of this Incubator and provide an investment that will help grow ag-technology companies in our county and state.”
Before the grand opening, several ag-technology entrepreneurs were assisted during a “pilot project” to see if the Incubator concept would work. One client, Frank VanKempen, started a company with his partners, that manufactures machines to produce on-farm ethanol. GrassRoot Energy’s (GRE) technology works by extracting ethanol molecules that attach to the water vapor that is created during the fermentation process. GRE’s patented machines extract the vaporized ethanol by running it over a refrigeration coil at dew-point. The Great Lakes Ag-Tech Business Incubator provided a variety of services to help the company be poised to begin selling its machines in 2015. "The expert assistance provided by this Incubator is exactly what our company needed to propel us forward,” stated Frank VanKempen, managing member, GrassRoots Energy. “I would strongly encourage farmers and entrepreneurs with ag-technology ideas to connect with this Incubator if they want to establish a business and rapidly generate sales."
There is no fee for entrepreneurs to use the services if they are selected to be a client in the Incubator. Instead, Incubator clients must agree to return 2% of their gross annual sales to the Incubator. At year 10, entrepreneurs have a buy-out option. This unique fee structure aligns the goals of both the client and the Incubator to rapidly commercialize their ag-tech ideas and generate sales quickly. The Ag-Tech model is predicated on “business services fees” sustaining the Incubator in the future. Most prospective clients understand the value of the business services fee because they know the Incubator’s success is tied directly to their company’s sales. In other words, the Incubator’s success is directly tied to the Incubator client’s success.
Unlike typical incubators, the Great Lakes Ag-Tech Business Incubator does not provide physical building space for its clients. This “Garage Incubator” model dedicates almost all of its resources solely to staff who help commercialize the client’s technology. When facilities are needed for clients, the Incubator will broker space (office, loading dock, warehouse) on a piecemeal basis from existing landlords in the community. The Incubator’s low investment, low risk, performance driven model is one that resonated with funders, clients, partners and the Incubator’s Board of Directors.
“The Incubator brings a new and innovative dimension to the agriculture industry in Michigan,” said Kurt Brauer, chair of the Great Lakes Ag-Tech Business Incubator and a partner with the law firm of Warner Norcross & Judd. "Our Board is pleased with the model that has been developed by Ottawa County, and we look forward to working with our staff, sponsors, member counties and other partners to help entrepreneurs rapidly commercialize their agricultural technology ideas.”
The Incubator’s Board of Directors is comprised of both private and public sector advisors with outstanding credentials in agriculture, business, economic development and government.
The Board Members include the following individuals:
- Kurt Brauer, Chair — Partner, Warner Norcross & Judd, LLP
- Jennifer Owens, Vice-Chair President — Lakeshore Advantage
- Mark Schmidt, Secretary — Founder, BizStream
- Dan Lennon, Treasurer — President and CEO, Michigan Turkey Producers
- Jim Byrum — President, Michigan Agri-Business Assn.
- Don Disselkoen — Ottawa County Commissioner
- Ben Geiger — Barry County Commissioner
- Dale Grogan — Managing Director, Charter Capital Partners
- Merle Langeland — President, Ottawa County Farm Bureau
- Cliff Meeuwsen — President, Zeeland Farm Services
Farmers, entrepreneurs and business owners who have an equipment, machinery, software or other ag-tech product idea are encouraged to contact Ottawa County to apply for Incubator services. Individuals may call 616-738-4852 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.