Holland startup incubator offers much-need physical space for entrepreneurs

HOLLAND — The launch of a brick-and-mortar startup incubator in downtown Holland is the latest effort to cultivate a thriving tech community in the lakeshore city.

Late last month, economic development organization Lakeshore Advantage Corp. publicly unveiled The SURGE Center, a shared home for tech startups around the Holland area nestled inside the Holland SmartZone, which was established in 2016.

“I’ve been on the (SmartZone) board since its inception and really pushed to have this,” said Brian Burch, chair of the Holland SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA). “This is just the maturing of the SmartZone.”

The Holland SmartZone is a part of the Michigan SmartZone Program and was established in 2016 as a satellite location for the Grand Rapids SmartZone. SmartZones were created to bring together resources and infrastructure within certain geographical locations to cater to the technology community and attract startups.

However, Holland tech entrepreneurs over the past half decade have had to be fairly nomadic, utilizing shared workspaces and public locations to meet and do business. The SURGE Center is a physical home for these startups, and already has around 20 tenants.

Before creating the brick-and-mortar SURGE Center, Lakeshore Advantage offered its SURGE Program for startups, providing entrepreneurs with classes and mentorship to help grow their businesses. Participants would regularly meet at The Treehuis, a coworking space also owned by Burch.

Lakeshore Advantage’s opening of The SURGE Center is a crucial step in enhancing the effectiveness of the SmartZone, according to Burch.

“You always want to take pride in the people that leave because they graduate into something better,” Burch said. “The SURGE Center is where emerging entrepreneurs can get started, learn some things, meet some people, get their network going and kind of get on their way.”

Burch also highlighted how Holland lands in a “sweet spot” when it comes to hosting startups, emphasizing that social, intellectual and financial capital are musts in a startup community. 

The SURGE Center enhances the social capital of the area, Burch said. The city also is the birthplace of angel investing group Grand Angels and home to mammoth homegrown companies like Gentex Corp., MillerKnoll Inc. and Haworth Inc.

“All of those organizations came up with a crazy wild idea out of nowhere and built it and hustled and now they’re very large,” Burch said. “The idea being: We don’t know where any of these (startups) are going to go, so you have to build an environment that has to reflect the community.”

Hugh Davis, co-founder and CEO of Holland-based Revolin Sports LLC, has been a member of the SURGE program since 2018 and is a tenant at The SURGE Center. His company has developed a high-performance, sustainable pickleball paddle made from advanced materials. Revolin Sports has been deemed a tech startup because of its involvement with material science technology and advanced manufacturing techniques.

“I think it’s very surprising for me just the sheer amount of resources for a startup in Holland and in West Michigan,” Davis said. “I would have never thought that.” 

“Especially for us as a manufacturing company, Holland —and Michigan in general — has a lot of history in manufacturing. We have a lot of experts at manufacturing companies that can build and design things for us,” Davis said. “I think Holland is a stellar startup community, especially for a physical product company like ours.”

New digs

The SURGE Center shares space with local software developer Collective Idea at 44 E. 8th St. in Holland. Lakeshore Advantage Director of Entrepreneurship Amanda Chocko said the facility is a product of focus grouping several entrepreneurs to learn how the community could be more effective for startups. Chocko said the top three items included fiber internet connection, access to capital and a physical location. 

Lakeshore Advantage also conducted a feasibility study through the Center for Faithful Leadership at Hope College to see if a facility of this nature would be well utilized, especially as the business community continues to grapple with COVID-19 restrictions.

Ultimately, Lakeshore Advantage moved into the space in February.

Aside from general amenities like conference rooms, a kitchen and bathrooms, The SURGE Center provides programming that works with companies from startup through commercialization. This includes proof of concept and customer discovery programs. Above all else, it provides greatly needed community among entrepreneurs, Chocko said.

“Entrepreneurship can be a very isolating situation,” she added. “To have other people that have gone through, or will be going through, the same challenges that you have, or some successes they can share or connections you can make — that’s important.”

Chocko also said the Holland business community has responded in a big way.

“It’s very close-knit, but not exclusive,” Chocko said of Holland’s business community. “I have no shortage of people reaching out to say that they want to help. I have over 50 mentors and probably more that want to get involved. People are super interested in giving back and just in innovation and entrepreneurship.”

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