With the help of 100K Ideas, you could be Flint’s newest inventor and entrepreneur.
Even the space that houses the nonprofit 100K Ideas, the Ferris Wheel in downtown Flint, is inventive as a co-working space. Both have received national recognition for their ingenuity.
Over at C3 3D LLC in Flint, an additive manufacturing or industrial 3-D printing company, it has had its own fame and recognition. The company created a 3-D printed duck bill for Blu the injured duck and a 3-D-printed wheelchair of sorts for Earl the cat, whose back legs are paralyzed. C3 3D is growing using the emerging 3-D printing technology, dipping into the medical and aerospace fields along the way.
And there’s entrepreneur Royce Lawrence. He got ahead of the growing trend of Escape Room play, where people use a series of clues to solve a puzzle to unlock a door before time expires. Lawrence in 2015 opened Michigan Escape Games in Davison Township, one of the first Escape Rooms in Michigan. He’s planning another expansion, too.
The businesses are part of what state and local experts describe as the Flint area’s growing entrepreneurial climate or ecosystem. The nonprofit Kauffman Foundation, which tracks entrepreneurship activities across the U.S., finds in its research that an entrepreneurial ecosystem has several key elements. They include a number of entrepreneurs, incubators, access to capital and public-sector support, plus ideas and knowledge that come from places such as colleges and universities, military facilities, research labs, medical facilities and existing businesses and industries.
Long known for its manufacturing roots and being home to thousands of General Motors employees, Flint and Genesee County’s economy has greatly diversified over the past several decades – much because of entrepreneurs.
“Flint is a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem because of the commitment of leaders, at all levels of the community, who collaborate to drive innovation.”
Janis Mueller, Regional Director I-69 Trade Corridor Region, Michigan Small Business Dev. Ctr.
“Flint has always been a place where people came to see what they could make of themselves. This hasn’t changed,” said Janis Mueller, regional director of the I-69 Trade Corridor Region of the Michigan Small Business Development Center. The center serves Genesee County from offices at Kettering University. “In fact, there is a conscious effort to work together to make Flint even better through the creation of a thriving small business and entrepreneurship community.”
While the Kauffman Foundation compares the largest metropolitan areas for entrepreneurial activity, Flint is not among them. Michigan received mixed marks in entrepreneurial indexes from Kauffman, ranking 15th out of 25 large states for startup activity, 13th for Main Street Entrepreneurship, a measure of established small business activity, and 25th, or last for Growth Entrepreneurship, in its most recent data.
The Michigan Economic Development Corp. worked with Skypoint Ventures to help the Flint-based company open the Ferris Wheel Innovation Center and 100K Ideas in fall 2017. In total, the Michigan Strategic Fund, a MEDC- affiliated board, provided $2.5 million in support to help launch the endeavors, including a $6.5 million renovation of the long vacant Ferris Building.
Fred Molnar, vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation at the MEDC, said during early project work, his impression was entrepreneurism in the Flint area was behind that of other cities in the state.
Flint and Genesee County lacked a SmartZone, which clusters tech-based companies, researchers and entrepreneurs in a specific location and provides support for their endeavors.
There are 20 SmartZones in the state. But due to a closed legislative window, no more can be added, Molnar said.
“The Flint Ferris Wheel (100K Ideas) really took the place of a SmartZone,” he said. “It becomes a sort of gathering place, a start-here spot.”
The concept for 100K Ideas (named for 100,000 people in Flint) is to help inventors move their ideas forward, said David Ollila, president of 100K Ideas and president and chief innovation officer for Skypoint Ventures.
“We believe that if you want to rebuild the middle class in the town that invented the middle class, you have to open your doors and welcome innovators of all types, regardless of their entrepreneurial skill sets,” he said.
The nonprofit innovation hub opened in early November and already has worked with 100 people. The vast majority have hardware or product-related ideas, he said. Initial meetings are free and deeper assessments and project work have small fees.
The 100K Ideas platform is modeled after a similar program, Invent@NMU, that Ollila helped launch in October 2014 at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.
Phil Hagerman, founder and co-owner of Skypoint Ventures, thought the model would be great for Flint, “particularly with all of the resident knowledge we have in making things, in manufacturing things and in engineering things,” Ollila said.
I00K Ideas is supported by a small staff and about 20 paid college students who gain experience in their majors helping inventors, Ollila said.
Gov. Rick Snyder recently praised Flint Ferris Wheel, which rents space by the table, desk, office and conference room, and 100K Ideas in his recent State of the State address. And last year, the National Development Council gave project partners a national award for their innovative finance structure.
The Ferris Wheel and 100K Ideas development also led to the creation of another new business: Divide By Design.
“We wanted to save some money, (and) we created a product to do so,” said Ollila, who serves as CEO of the wall system company. “As soon as we did that, people said they were interested in the product and started buying it.”
“We believe that if you want to rebuild the middle class in the town that invented the middle class, you have to open your doors and welcome innovators of all types, regardless of their entrepreneurial skill sets.”
David Ollila, President,100K Ideas
C3 3D, a division of C3 Ventures, primarily serves automotive industry suppliers.
It is led by Chris Williams, president and CEO, who started 3-D printing company GTechnologies LLC with a partner three years ago in Birmingham. He later bought out his partner and GTechnologies became C3 3D. Williams moved the business to Flint in late 2016.
Today, C3 3D has seven additive manufacturing 3-D printing machines.
“It’s a pretty amazing technology and basically allows us to make any type of parts our customers design, or we design,” Williams said.
C3 3D, for example, may make a thermal plastic 3-D printed prototype for a supplier to check a part’s fit before spending thousands of dollars on an injection mold tool, Williams said.
“It typically is an upfront, lower cost option and we’re quicker to market,” he said.
With sales of about $625,000 in 2017, Williams has plans to expand into working with aerospace and medical-related companies and add to his four employees.
“We set up shop here in Flint as C3 Ventures to help grow the economy and help provide jobs for the area. We just saw 3-D printing as an opportunity to help do that, but also create more of a high-tech image for the city of Flint.”
Chris Wiliams, President & CEO C3 3D
“We set up shop here in Flint as C3 Ventures to help grow the economy and help provide jobs for the area,” Williams said. “We just saw 3-D printing as an opportunity to help do that, but also create more of a high-tech image for the city of Flint… I don’t know of anybody else in the area that does what we do.”
Michigan Escape Games
Walk into any of Michigan Escape Games’ eight themed escape games and you better be ready to problem solve – and beat the ticking clock.
Royce Lawrence, who operates a haunted trail, said he learned about Escape Rooms during a trip to St. Louis about three years ago. “I was immediately hooked,” he said.
The concept originated in Japan and Asia, Lawrence said, and recently came to the U.S.
Lawrence opened his first two rooms in June 2015 – when there were just a few in Michigan. Michigan Escape Games now has eight rooms and nine scenarios. They range from “Final Breath,” an abduction escape, to “CheckMate,” full of nostalgic toys and games. Designed for small groups, players have a mission such as solving a murder or retrieving the anti-virus before becoming infected.
Lawrence said he’s invested several hundred thousand dollars into his escape games and plans to spend up to $40,000 more in an expansion. He hopes to have 14 rooms by the end of 2019.
Michigan Escape Games has “regulars” who drive up to three hours, Lawrence said. A lobby map includes thousands of pins from visitors across all 50 states, and many other countries, he said.
“The biggest thing for us is keeping the games and puzzles fresh, challenging, different from anyone else and more exciting than what you’ll find anywhere else,” Lawrence said.
Wealth of Help
Experts say Flint and Genesee County have ample resources to aid aspiring entrepreneurs. The City of Flint, for example, has the Oak Business Center incubator. And three years ago, the University of Michigan-Flint established the Hagerman Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation within its School of Management. The center, which provides student support and hosts public events, aims to garner interest and awareness in launching new enterprises.
The MISBDC helps businesses launch and grow by providing counseling and training. It recently has helped entrepreneurs in industries including manufacturing, technology, service, retail, professional services, health care, warehousing and transportation services, Mueller said.
She listed other entities aimed to help entrepreneurs from incubators and business centers at area colleges and universities, to the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, Flint SOUP, Veterans Business Outreach Center and the Inventors Council of Mid-Michigan, among others.
“Flint is a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem because of the commitment of leaders, at all levels of the community, who collaborate to drive innovation,” Mueller said.
Photos Ferris Wheel, Mike Naddeo and Carol Pongrac