Grand Rapids kicks off Tech Week in first major bid to be Midwest's startup hub – Crain's Detroit Business

GRAND RAPIDS — Downtown Grand Rapids will host its first-ever Tech Week starting Wednesday, part of a recently announced 10-year plan to position the city as a Midwestern tech hub.
Dubbed Tech Week Grand Rapids, the event will run through Saturday at various downtown locations, hosted by regional economic development organization The Right Place, the Grand Rapids SmartZone and other community groups.
Among the planned festivities are all-ages exhibits at a pop-up “tech hub,” panel discussions, a robotics expo and a startup pitch competition. Most events are free and open to the public.
Andria Romkema, senior vice president of marketing and communications at The Right Place, is coordinating the four-day event, which she hopes will draw in talent, company founders, entrepreneurs, and investors.
Two elements of the lineup — a pitch competition hosted by business incubator Start Garden and the music, arts and tech festival Confluence — already existed in previous iterations. The rest were created for Tech Week. Those billings include a brunch, a happy hour, a tech showcase and an invitation-only event hosted by Spartan Innovations, all of them centered on innovation in some form.
Based on past attendance, organizers believe Tech Week could draw several thousand people to Grand Rapids in its first year. Romkema expects some will come for Tech Week, while others will already be in town for ArtPrize and attend tech events on the side.
Either way, she believes Tech Week will have “an energy and an excitement” that will draw people in.
“Tech Week Grand Rapids is a way for us to tell our story, to showcase Grand Rapids as one of the leading tech sectors in the Midwest and really tell people, ‘You don’t need to go to the coasts if you want to have a high-tech career,'” she said.
Jeremiah Gracia, director of economic development for Grand Rapids and executive director of the SmartZone, which captures property tax dollars to fund the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, sees Tech Week as a public manifestation of the work its event partners are doing behind the scenes. The SmartZone, for instance, funds startup incubator work at Start Garden and Spartan Innovations. It also supported the inaugural Confluence festival, and has long worked with Midwest House — a South by Southwest affiliate and pop-up venue — to bring crowds to Grand Rapids.
“(Tech Week) is directly in line with the SmartZone’s strategic priorities,” Gracia said.
Paul Moore, co-director of Start Garden, said the incubator’s pitch competition, Demo Day, will feature over 30 new companies trying to get off the ground and 70 more in early stages of development. Having the event during Tech Week will give them a chance to connect with investors and established founders, he said.
“When people show up (to Demo Day), they typically say, ‘I had no idea this was happening in Grand Rapids,’ especially people that are coming in from out of town,” he said.
Brian Cohen, a former ArtPrize staffer, is director of Confluence, which started last year with a focus on science and technology as well as art and music.
“We look at what happens when innovation in one of those pillars overlaps with innovation in another,” Cohen said.
This year, the festival will include showcases for both music and innovation, a robotics expo and a panel discussion featuring tech leaders.
Cohen believes Confluence adds an experiential component to Tech Week. While some events include presentations on new tech, Confluence will highlight the real-world applications of those technologies.
For example: “(The Right Place is) going to have an NFT presentation talking about the new tech, but then (at) Confluence, we’re going to have local NFT artists actually on the ground, creating it, talking people through the process and showing collections from artists across the country,” he said.
Ted Velie is one of the co-founders of Midwest House — the region’s “experiential embassy” to South by Southwest since 2015 — bringing together thinkers on global enterprise, government, entrepreneurship, philanthropy and music to share ideas and collaborate. Midwest House also helps host larger-scale events in Chicago and Indianapolis, and will take Michigan Tech Week to Detroit from Oct. 12-13.
Velie is excited to be part of the temporary Tech Hub at 80 Ottawa Ave. NW, which will host the Grand Rapids Tech Showcase on Friday with hands-on tech exhibits from local companies.
He’s also looking forward to seeing Grand Rapids get to the point where “success begets success” in the tech economy.
“A successful company is really good for a small amount of people; a really successful innovation community is good for everybody,” he said.
Velie believes Grand Rapids’ first Tech Week will set the stage for the city to host other events in the future, like Michigan Tech Week.
The week’s one event that’s closed to the public is a brunch and tour of the Doug Meijer Medical Innovation Building that, when completed, will house Spartan Innovations’ startup incubator on the fourth floor.
Kyle McGregor, director of health innovation for Spartan Innovations, is hosting that event, which will include a talk on the relationship between funders and founders. Space was limited to 80-90 people, and the tables are full, McGregor said. The room will be populated with early-stage and first-time founders and angel investors, he said.
“We just really want to show that it doesn’t always have to be like what you see on ‘Shark Tank’ on TV,” he said. “It can be a cool, relational approach to figuring out how to get companies and funders to work together to build up the ecosystem that we want to see.”

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