Varnum commits to additional help for startups under MiSpringboard initiative

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

In 2011 when Varnum began offering free legal services to startup entrepreneurs through the MiSpringboard program, it was under bleaker economic times in Michigan than today.

Now, in the improved economic situation to which it could be argued that Varnum has contributed, the firm has announced that it will renew its commitment for a second time.

Each tranche of MiSpringboard has represented $1 million in commitments, which Varnum tracks in terms of billable hours. The original plan was to offer that million dollars’ worth of service for five years, and in 2016, another $1 million in services was committed. But now, as the milestone of helping 500 startups has recently passed, Varnum is pledging another $1 million after only three additional years.

Back in 2011, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was initiating Michigan Business Connect, and he helped launch MiSpringboard as part of the array of services it offered.

At the time of the official launch in June of that year, Larry Murphy was Varnum’s managing partner, and he stated, “This program is Varnum's commitment to take positive action to advance Michigan's economy. We’re very proud to stand side by side with Michigan businesses eager to grow our economy and put our state back to work.”

Murphy and the team that developed MiSpringboard were joined at the launch by Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Senior Vice-President Martin Dober. MEDC’s Chief Executive Officer Mike Finney commented at the time, “What makes this particular program so powerful is that it removes an obstacle for dozens of startup and early stage Michigan businesses. Entrepreneurs can invest the dollars they would normally set aside for legal work in company infrastructure and jobs.”

Indeed, says Varnum attorney Eric Post, jobs are still a focus of the program. MiSpringboard has a committee of Varnum employees which reviews startups that have asked for assistance. “As a company is going through the application process, the committee evaluates the job creation potential and  other similar factors,” Post says.

“The committee comes back and determines what services the client receives, and most get approximately  $2500 in free legal services. We’ll talk with the client and find out what’s important to them, but we try to structure it in such a way that we can,

ideally, give them a completed project within that  $2500.”

Post says that on rare occasion the nature of the company’s needs mandates additional work, in which case the committee may sometimes add to the $2500 total or at other times offer services beyond that at discounted rates. “But we want to give them something that’s complete,” Post says, “and avoid any sense of ‘bait and switch.’”

In a press release marking the firm’s renewed commitment, Varnum’s Matt Bower, who is another attorney working extensively with startups, stated, “When we started MiSpringboard in 2011, in the midst of the recession, the idea was to support and grow Michigan’s economy in the way we are best equipped to do: by providing legal services to new businesses, helping them start with a solid foundation and prepare them for growth. Today, with over 500 clients served through the program, we are still amazed at the talent and technology being developed all across our state, and very proud to have a role in one of Michigan’s great success stories – the development of the entrepreneurial community.”

Post adds, “I’ve been really surprised at the level of technological expertise in a lot of clients that you would expect in the more stereotypical hubs like Silicon Valley. There are a lot of interesting ideas, really cool ideas – some of these companies are kind of what I’d call disruptors in that tech space. A lot of interesting stories have come out of it.”

Varnum has collected a lot of the entrepreneurial stories at www.varnumlaw.com/assets/htmldocuments/Services/2016-MiSpringboard-Product-Guide.pdf. They include not only technical companies such as Mountain Labs in Ann Arbor, which has developed Symport, a data management platform to help healthcare professionals collect, clean and share sensitive data; and Holland-based GeLo, which uses Bluetooth smart beacons, the cloud platform and custom mobile apps to help users learn more about their world, including guided tours (for which Varnum’s Bruce Goodman serves as an attorney); but also such well-known non-profit and for-profit businesses as:

—Rebel Nell, which exists to employ, educate and empower disadvantaged women in Detroit. The business operates by collecting bits of local graffiti which have fallen off walls and repurposing the pieces as beautiful pendants, earrings, cuff links and rings. The women are chosen based on recommendations from local homeless shelters, and Rebel Nell also provides assistance and education for the women. The aforementioned Matt Bower is their lawyer.

—Hop Head Farms - a Plainwell company founded in 2011 which has become the Midwest leader in hop processing production. Hop Head, founded by Jeff and Bonnie Steinman and ‘Chicagoan Nunzino Pizza,’ now serves over 200 brewers and produces and develops over 500 acres of hops

—Alter Cycles. Mark Groendal of Wyoming started out his patented and customizable bicycle as a racing bike, but soon discovered that his “smooth-ride” technology would be perfect for an everyday bike as well.
The clients make their homes in over 100 Michigan cities including the Upper Peninsula, and range in subject matter from alternative energy to beekeeping. They are early-stage companies as well as startups.
Post, a Holland resident who started out his career at Grand Haven firm Scholten and Fant, has been at Varnum for about five years, so he was not there at the 2011 start. He says he thinks this gives him “a unique kind of perspective” on MiSpringboard.

 Noting that the word has spread widely  in the legal community about Varnum’s contribution, Post says,  “MiSpringboard has been a great recruiting tool. The first thing new associates often ask about is this. It gives associates more flexibility to see all the issues affecting startups.”

Post’s own business and corporate practice in the automotive, manufacturing, technology, retail and health care industries focuses on counseling across the broad range of corporate law, including general corporate gov-
ernance. “We have a robust startup and emerging companies group,” he says.

So far, about a third of the startups have continued to use Varnum for their legal needs on a paid basis.

Post also explains that the original “intake” bodies through which MiSpringboard clients are referred are approximately 40 business and economic development hubs across the state. These range from Start Garden in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor SPARK, Troy’s Automation Alley, the Chi Ishobak of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, the Muskegon Innovation Hub, to the services at many universities including Northern Michigan, Lawrence Technological University, Grand Valley State,  University of Michigan and Michigan State. It also includes statewide agencies such as the MEDC, the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center, SCORE?(the retiree counselors group) and Pure Michigan Business Connect where MiSpringboard had its origins and which is now part of MEDC.

“MiSpringboard is focused on economic growth and new ideas. It’s been good for us at Varnum and good for the state as a whole,” Post observes.

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