Grants Help Artists Become Entrepreneurs

By John Hill The Providence Journal, R.I.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) 17 small Providence-based businesses created by Rhode Island School of Design graduates have received grants ranging from $12,000 to $35,000. The grants are through a program dubbed the Providence Design Catalyst. The idea is to target firms with solid business plans that need capital and advice to make the move from "almost-there" to "growing" businesses.

PROVIDENCE

Say "arts economy," and it might well conjure the image of a spartan loft occupied by a solitary artist in a paint-stained smock whose major contribution to the city's commerce is the cost of paint. And maybe laundry.

The city that is home to the Rhode Island School of Design wants to change that to an image more like Lukas Scheurer or Andrea Valentini, RISD graduates whose art educations have produced viable businesses that occupy empty buildings and hire local workers.

Both were among 17 small Providence-based businesses that received grants, ranging from $12,000 to $35,000, this year through a program dubbed the Providence Design Catalyst. Lisa Carnevale, executive director of DESIGNxRI, which ran the program, said the idea was to target firms with solid business plans that needed capital and advice to make the move from the almost-there to growing businesses.

Applicants had to be Providence residents, she said, own a business with fewer than five employees, and not make more money than 80 percent of the city's median personal income. The winners included makers of clothing, magazines, toys, furniture and lighting. The grants included money from the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

Mayor Jorge O. Elorza said the program is part of the city's plan to expand the local economy by keeping RISD graduates in the city and having them build their businesses in Providence rather than somewhere else.

Scheurer is a 2013 industrial design graduate who got tired of constantly dropping his cellphone, so he designed a multipurpose phone holder. The device looks like an oversized soda can pull-top ring that attaches to the back of a phone case. A wrist strap can be clipped to the ring, and it twists and tilts to double as a phone stand, propping the phone up horizontally or vertically. The device also comes with a small pyramid-like magnetic base that can be mounted on a dashboard to hold the phone in place while driving.

Scheurer got a $35,000 grant and used it to buy a laser cutter that can slice steel. He needed it because the most crucial, and expensive, part of his design was the small steel clip that holds the different attachments to the ring base. He'd been using a Connecticut contractor for the cutting, but cost, quality control and time had become issues.

Owning a laser cutter not only gave him greater production control, he said, but it reduced his costs by about two-thirds. Scheurer's company, Linkmount Systems, has grown to where he needed to buy a building to house the cutting and assembly operations.

Valentini, a 1995 RISD graduate, was working at interior design, particularly fabrics for furniture, when she came across a foam-rubber-based fabric that can be molded and is extremely durable. She saw handbags, duffels and purses, and founded AV Designs a year ago to make them.

She moved into empty space in the old Wanskuck Mill, which doubles as her showroom and factory. Customers come in, pick their colors and patterns, and the bags are made on-site, she said. Her grant helped her make a commercial to expand the reach of her product line.

Gregory Victory, director of continuing education at RISD, said that in the past, an entrepreneur might need to be in New York City or some other large market to be seen. But in 2016, product shows and the Internet allows them to sell from and to anywhere; they don't need to leave Providence to reach any market.

A pleasing side effect of the grant program is that it put the 17 business owners in touch with each other, he said, helping them create a support network that future art-based entrepreneurs will be able to plug into as well.

Winners of Providence Design Catalyst grants $35,000 grants -- Bela Monde, clothing-maker owned by Lisa Limer, a former Conde Nast travel photographer who bases her patterns on pictures she took around the world. -- Heather Guidero Jewelry. Guidero makes jewelry from recycled metals. -- ILOROM, owner Wanda Miglus. Miglus uses a patented technique for fabrics that decorate private yachts and jets. -- Linkmount Systems, owner Lukas Scheurer, manufactures cellphone holders. -- Studio Endo, owner Miles Endo, makes Hira lights, LED bulbs inside circular or oblong copper bands with white or black exteriors and burnished copper interiors.

$27,500 grants -- Atelier Rosenkrantz, owner Rachel Rosenkrantz makes handcrafted acoustic guitars. -- LLAMAproduct, owned by Jason Tranchida, provides graphic design and advice on branding, mostly to nonprofit groups, and publishes Headmaster Magazine.

$25,000 grants -- Christian Thomas Designs, owner Christian Descoteaux, makes furniture from salvaged and recycled materials. -- Nest Homeware, owner Mike Carvallo, produces cast-iron cookware. -- Oblique Studio, owner Mike Larsen, designs and builds furniture. -- Spirare Surfboards, owned by Kevin Cunningham, makes surfboards out of plastic trash cleaned out of the world's oceans. -- Sproutel, owner Hannah Chang developed a talking toy, Jerry the Bear, that has type 1 diabetes and is targeted for children with the condition.

$22,000 grants -- AV Productions, Andrea Valentini developed foam-rubber-based material for a line of durable purses and handbags.

$20,000 grants -- Fulcrum Product Development, owned by Douglas Stern, builds wheelchairs and cushions for the disabled. -- Increment, owned by Maeve Jopson, makes and markets O-Rings, a large-scale set of fabric rings that children can play with individually or pile up.

$15,000 grants -- Joshua Shockley Interior Design, owned by Joshua Shockey.

- $12,000 grants -- There Will Be Cake, owned by Jessica and Robin McGuirl. Graphic-design business that creates unique wedding invitations, menus, placemats and other items for large family gatherings.

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