By Tom Walsh Detroit Free Press.
Do all super-successful startup companies have to be wildly "disruptive" to the status quo and the big established companies in their industries?
You might think so, from all the attention lavished on digital-age phenoms like Amazon and Uber wreaking havoc upon traditional bookstores and taxicabs.
But here in a midsized west Michigan city, an unusual incubator-accelerator called Seamless is trying to demonstrate that there's room for -- indeed, a need for -- collaboration between new and old, tiny and huge, companies in the Age of Disruption.
And judging from its first public coming-out party, Seamless is onto something.
Last Tuesday, the inaugural Seamless cohort of eight early-stage startups -- from as near as Holland, Michigan and as far as California, Miami and the United Kingdom -- showed off their innovations and business aspirations to more than 200 investors and business leaders, in a Demo Day capping a 12-week program that included $20,000 seed capital infusions and intensive mentoring for all the startups. The startups were all partnered with one or more large corporations from various industries -- Steelcase, Meijer, Faurecia. Amway, Spectrum Health and Priority Heath.
Demo Day highlights included:
* Scanalytics, a Milwaukee-based inventor of Internet-connected floor sensors, announced a $200,000 investment from the Start Garden venture capital fund and incubator launched in 2012 by Rick DeVos, grandson of Amway cofounder Richard DeVos.
* AlSentis, a Holland-based innovator in touch technologies, said it has completed an equity financing round led by Steelcase and Start Garden. Details were not disclosed, but the firm told Forbes magazine in May that it hoped to raised several million dollars in a Series A financing round this year.
* HAAS, a Chicago-based firm that alerts car and motorcycle drivers, bicyclists and others to the presence nearby emergency vehicles on the go, is partnering with automotive supplier Faurecia to show its technology at the Connected Car Expo in Los Angeles next week.
* Both HAAS and Scanalytics are planning to set up new offices in the Grand Rapids area, following their Seamless experience.
This coming together of new ventures and industry-leading giants from the automotive, retail, office furniture and health care industries is driven by the ascendance of the so-called "Internet of Things," that will deploy embedded sensors and software to connect billions of devices around the world, from cars and washers to industrial robots.
Rick DeVos, who hatched several entrepreneurial support efforts and created the hugely successful ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, said the Seamless concept was a natural for west Michigan.
"With the fact that we make things here that touch significant parts of people's physical lives, whether it be automobiles, retail stores or office environments," DeVos said, "it seemed like a really compelling proposition to ask, How do we make the large enterprises here more permeable to the startup movement? And then how do we use those enterprises to help supercharge those startups in a mutually beneficial way?"
Rob Huber, vice president of innovation for French-owned auto supplier Faurecia in North America, where 20,000 of its 100,000 worldwide employees work, was an earlier industrial backer of the concept. Huber, who formerly worked for Johnson Controls in west Michigan, saw Holland as a natural spot for Faurecia to locate an innovation center in 2006, in an area known for office furniture pioneers and entrepreneurial companies like Meijer and Amway, whose success had made billionaires of their founding families.
"At Faurecia, we're pushing hard to redefine and reinvent the automotive interior," Huber said, "so this seemed like a perfect fit." The French firm later planted similar innovation teams in Munich, Germany and Shanghai, China.
As one of the founding corporate partners of Seamless, Faurecia has worked with several of the startups, including AlSentis, a firm whose innovative touch technology is led by inventor Dave Caldwell, a serial entrepreneur who once worked at Holland-based auto parts maker Donnelly, now owned by Magna International.
Along with AlSentis, HAAS and Scanalytics, the first group of Seamless startups included Hawaii-based Hoana Medical, creator of the LifeBed mattress cover to track a patient's vital statistics; Cosign, a New York e-commerce firm that employs smart-tagging to allow purchasing direct from clicking on photo images; UK-based robotics firm Nobot; TracTouch Mobile, of Miami, a vibration messaging platform; and Friendly, a patient-doctor communication system whose founders are based in California.
Justin Teitt, the CEO of AlSentis, was a California-based consultant and investor who had connected with Caldwell and thought he was recruiting the inventor to come to Silicon Valley, but instead wound up relocating himself to Michigan after seeing how Devos and Mike Morin, who manages investments for Start Garden, were building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region.
"Rick deVos and Mike Morin are the reason we're still in Michigan," he said.