DeVos’ Start Garden Aims to Give Grand Rapids a Jolt

5/24/12Follow @XconomyDET

A young member of a prominent Michigan family known for its wealth, its power in political circles, and its philanthropy has launched a new endeavor to try to stoke the flames of entrepreneurship in West Michigan.

The DeVos family looms large in Michigan, particularly in Grand Rapids, the second-largest city in the state. They are billionaires thanks to the Amway Corporation, which Richard DeVos co-founded in 1959. They give a lot of money back to their community—the DeVos name is stamped on quite a few buildings in West Michigan—and the family is also deeply involved in politics. Dick DeVos, Richard’s son, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Michigan in 2006, and Richard, Dick, and Dick’s wife Betsy are considered on par with the Koch brothers in terms of their influence in conservative politics.

Though 30-year-old Rick DeVos shares some of his father Dick’s physical features, he has chosen a different philanthropic path. Instead of funneling money to the American Enterprise Institute or Focus on the Family, he has chosen put his cash behind efforts to build entrepreneurship and civic participation in West Michigan. His official biography for ArtPrize, which he launched in 2009, says that he wants to “focus on endeavors that create, expand, or enlighten conversation.” ArtPrize has certainly done that. Last year, it drew competitors and spectators from all over the world—more than 300,000 of them. The $1.4 million in prizes helps, but so does the uniqueness of the event: Any artist in the world is invited to compete, any property owner in Grand Rapids can offer its space as a venue to host artwork, and crowds of people walk around the city over a period of several days voting on which pieces they like best. Rick DeVos is fond of calling it a social experiment, but it’s on its way to becoming one of the most popular annual events in Michigan.

Last month, Rick DeVos launched Start Garden, a $15 million seed fund. What makes it different from other funds is that Start Garden invests in increments. Every week, the fund invests $5,000 in two ideas for potential companies: one picked by Start Garden and one selected through a public vote. (Anyone with a Facebook account can vote for five ideas per week.) “Five thousand dollars is enough to validate something,” DeVos says. “I want to invest in people who can provide something to validate.”

Those who are granted $5,000 must come back to Grand Rapids within two months to update the Start Garden team on their progress and prove, as DeVos puts it, that … Next Page »

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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