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Varnum Commits Second $1 Million in Free Legal Services to Startups and Emerging Companies

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June 30, 2016

MiSpringboard, Varnum's $1 million commitment in free legal services to Michigan startups, is celebrating its five-year anniversary this month. Originally a five-year commitment, the program that has helped more than 200 emerging companies in over 60 communities across Michigan will be extended for another five years and another $1 million, the firm announced today.

"When we started the program, there was no data to suggest how well used it would be and no clear pathway to connect with the entrepreneurs who might make use of it," said Varnum Chairman Dave Khorey. "We just knew that despite the downturn in the economy, the startup community seemed to be expanding. We decided to help by providing some of the legal services associated with starting a business."

"Two of the greatest needs my teams consistently identify are...assistance with legal issues...and funding to cover legal services. MiSpringboard is a one-of-a-kind program that addresses those needs in one fell swoop." – Ryan Gourley, Director of TechArb

Five years later, startups and emerging companies are a thriving segment of the economy, drawing the attention and support of public and private investment. Pitch competitions are held almost weekly across the state, and nearly every large community in Michigan is home to a business incubator, SmartZone or other organization that nurtures new businesses.

"There are more resources available to entrepreneurs, including funding sources at earlier stages and more incubator and accelerator programs," noted Varnum partner Harvey Koning, who works with clients in the MiSpringboard program. "For example, valuable resources like Start Garden did not even exist five years ago."

Along with the expanding entrepreneurial ecosystem, the need for resources to help companies at the early stage is also increasing, and Varnum's referral partners have underscored the value of programs like MiSpringboard which help fledgling companies get off to a good start.

"Two of the greatest needs my teams consistently identify are one, assistance with legal issues such as incorporation and intellectual property protection and two, funding to cover legal services," said Ryan Gourley, Director of TechArb Student Incubator, run jointly by The Center for Entrepreneurship and the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.

"MiSpringboard is a one-of-a-kind program that addresses those needs in one fell swoop," Gourley said. "It's wonderful that we have a resource like MiSpringboard here for our students, getting them the help they need and providing them the foundation to launch their businesses here and continue to drive Michigan's economic future."

Varnum attorney Matt Bower, whose practice focuses on emerging companies and who works extensively with clients in the MiSpringboard program, credits emerging technology as a driving force in the growth of the startup industry.

"The growth in startup activity started with the tech community coming together in the form of meetups and co-working spaces to talk about what was going on and share ideas and resources," Bower said. "Then there was a corresponding rise of early stage investors in the state, closely followed by the state's own investment in startups through grants and enhanced SmartZones. When you have a strong community, funding sources and support of the state, the entrepreneurs respond."

To date, MiSpringboard has worked with 220 companies across the state. Detroit and Ann Arbor have the highest concentration of clients with 33 each, followed by 24 in Grand Rapids, 10 in Kalamazoo, six in Novi and five in Battle Creek. The rest are spread across the state, including five in Houghton/Hancock area of the Keweenaw Peninsula and two in Marquette.

Among the companies helped by the program so far are:

  • Alter Cycles – makers of bicycles with unique frames specifically designed to dampen road chatter and provide a smoother ride. 
  • Benefit Mobile – a gift card platform that allows users to make contributions to schools and nonprofits through everyday purchases.
  • Cribspot – online service that allows college students across the country to find off-campus housing and pay rent online.
  • Foodjunky – service that makes it easy to order food for a group.
  • Kollecto – service that allows users to find art they can afford, based on individual taste.
  • OXX Products – makers of premium products for people who work and play outside, including COFFEEBOXX.
  • Tome – engineering company that works on product development in the IOT industry.
  • Turtle Cell – maker of cell phone protective case with retractable ear buds.

While the startup ecosystem in Michigan has grown tremendously, it shows no signs of slowing down, and Bower said technology will once again play a major role in future growth.

"One big changes has been the emergence of "Internet of Things" - IOT companies; that is, companies that deploy sensors in the physical world to collect and exchange data through a software platform," said Bower. "Software companies are increasingly in the hardware and manufacturing business as well. The next phase is analytics – crunching that massive pool of data."

Another growth area we can expect to see in the coming years has to do with advances in 3D printing.

"It's getting much cheaper, and the market is just getting started," Bower noted. "It will be fascinating to see how it shapes the industrial, biomedical, and consumer products in the next three to five years."

To be considered for the MiSpringboard program, clients are referred by partner organizations including business incubators, Smart Zones, angel investors, state agencies, universities and entrepreneur programs from around the state. Although services are tailored to fit client needs, typical legal services for MiSpringboard clients include company formation and operating agreements, employment agreements, vendor contracts, trademark work and licensing agreements.

To learn more about MiSpringboard, visit mispringboard.com.

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