Ferris Wheel in Flint helps entrepreneurs from idea to startup

GRAND BLANC TWP. — Local business people and leaders were treated to an introduction to one of Flint’s newest creations to spur business in the area — the Ferris Wheel.

Far from an entertaining ride, the Ferris Wheel is a business innovation network which offers unique ways to assist even the smallest of entrepreneurs ways to get their business from their brain to the bazaar.

SkyPoint Ventures LLC, owns the building under the leadership of local businessman and philanthropist Phil Hagerman, former CEO of Diplomat Pharmacy, Inc. He created the project with the assistance of a $1.5 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp (MEDC).

Speaker David Ollila serves as president and chief innovation officer for SkyPoint said the Ferris Wheel has only been open about nine months and said SkyPoint is an investment company but “is mostly a glorified family office”.

The Ferris Wheel not only offers business help, but meeting space for businesses who might not have a central headquarters or office location in the area. Its main function hosts an innovation center whose model uses college students who were responsible for helping design the building from the ground up and managing co-working space within the building.

Co-working, also known as re-work, creates a membership style office building where someone could rent a small, single office for as little as a one-month term. Not having to lease a whole building, people only pay for part you’re using. The building is being built as they go, with floors 1—3 currently open and the other floors to be designed and occupied in future.

Ollila said this is not about just ‘startups’, but that long-term local businesses are using the space to re-energize meetings which have become just the standard back office get together and be with people who have things going on.

The first floor is reserved for supporting innovators and entrepreneurs but in separate stages unlike how these centers are typically done. He said many people have ideas but need help breaking down friction to move forward. They help those with ideas determine if it is worth pursuing, without getting too deeply invested. This process, according to Ollila, gets people figuring out how to make things.

This creates an atmosphere where they can put a retail aspect on innovations, similar to a store front for a more typical business. They already have two such businesses in there, Foster Coffee Company (www.fostercoffee. co/), originally out of Owosso and Flint Prints, a full-service business printer (Flintprints.com) and mailing/ mailbox service.

According to Ollila those two businesses generate walk-in traffic which can use their non-profit, 100K Ideas, to help relieve entrepreneurs from the burdens of innovation. Out of the 124 ideas they have dealt with since November, 80 have paid for the process to move forward and they have about 15 active clients being led by students through the beginning process of bringing their product to market.

There are three primary outcomes when getting started with 100K Ideas 1) taking a concept with no money or business plan and finding out if there’s a market and margin for their idea, 2) Workforce development: By taking undergrad college students from all over the country and pairing them with entrepreneurs, they create a partnership to move through the business creation process. Ollila says putting these young people in real world scenarios gives them an insight into job creation which can’t be obtained in the classroom.

Third, the Ferris Wheel builds sustainability and economic development by starting at the supply chain for the ideas which come in the door. When the first got the building, it was an open space so they had to think how to fill it. They didn’t want to build out the whole thing to start, because they wanted to leave their options open. Ollila explained his and Hagerman’s thought process was to not create physical barriers like solid walls which might impede their future progress so they started by looking at demountable walls.

Most of the ones they found were very expensive, but Ollila persisted. He made a $30 model of a common wall bracket, had a college student do the CAD, or computer-aided design work, and sent it to a supplier in Jackson.

Ollila said the system is selling like hotcakes and for shipping he went to a local business, Landaal Packaging and found out they could do anything with corrugated (cardboard), including creating wall panels which can be printed on.

It also saved over a million dollars in the build-out of the building he claimed. Landaal and the Jackson supplier are now the basis of Divide by Design, their new demountable wall company.

They then partnered with Jeld-Wen doors out of Grand Rapids who is partnering with off the shelf doors for the walls. The whole building was outfitted for less than $200,000 just based on the one, student-led idea, Ollila said.

“That really speaks about the model—about taking a minimal viable product, solving a problem and figuring out how you build and manufacture it in the area,” Ollila said.

“When you come into the Ferris Wheel and see the young people, the old people and the collaboration that’s happening and the innovation and this fearlessness of not worrying about someone telling you no, it’ll inspire you,” he added.

Ollila told the chamber members they can both add and extract value from what the Ferris Wheel is doing and encouraged them to check it out. It’s located in the old Ferris Furs building at 615 S. Saginaw St. downtown Flint. “It’s always an open house when it’s open,” Ollila explained.

Seventy percent of the ideas coming in are hardware he added.

“We make things and we know how to make things and we have the resident knowledge of how to make things.”

Flint is starting to be seen as an example of how to turn around a rustbelt city Ollila thinks.

“If you are going to rebuild the middle class, why don’t you do it where the middle class was invented?” Ollila asked.

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