Northern Michigan's Coolhouse Labs helps startups from all over the country

What do you think of when you think of startup culture? Silicon Valley? San Francisco? Maybe Chicago? What about Harbor Springs?

If Coolhouse Labs keeps up its recent efforts, the latter very well may be among the top places for tech and other business startups. It's a startup accelerator in Harbor Springs, founded by Jordan Breighner and a team of co-founders from all over the country whose fields of expertise include small business development, consulting and investment, social media and marketing.

Coolhouse Labs just finished funding its first round of tech-based startups this summer, in an intensive summer program which brought would-be entrepreneurs to Harbor Springs to workshop their ideas, tweak their business plans, and get their startup funded and off the ground. The newly developed businesses include ideas like a marketplace that connects small businesses with specialists like web developers, and a network and platform to help students and colleges arrange international travel more easily.

"There's no place in the world better for an accelerator than a small town," says Breighner, the accelerator's founder and managing director, a Harbor Springs native himself.

After a decade away from northwest Michigan, including time at college and working on both coasts, Breighner says he wanted to come back and be a part of the community he grew up in. But when he did, he noticed that young people were hard to find in the civic and business communities.

"I thought, 'What can we do to bring young people here?'" he says. The answer was to help them build their own businesses, especially mobile, flexible businesses like the online-based startups Coolhouse Labs is funding. (Find out the details on each here.)

"Our job at Coolhouse Labs is resources--connect them to mentors, capital, information," Breighner says.

So for 10 weeks each summer, entrepreneurs come to Harbor Springs and are matched up with co-founders and investors who can provide expertise or funding for their ideas. Coolhouse recruited about 60 mentors from all over the U.S. to help startups grow.

"We pair the entrepreneurs with mentors, and see what great ideas come out of it," Breighner says. "We take them through a sort of structural summer camp for startups."

While the companies funded by Coolhouse aren't strictly technology startups--others are a home furnishings company, an adaptive news reader and a local food marketplace that connects small local gardeners or growers with customers in their community--they do all have online genetics. They're lean, expandable and adaptable.

"That's the concept that we ran with," says Breighner. "Online companies can be really capital-efficient. They can grow very quickly."

But don't imagine that the online nature of Coolhouse's startups means there is no local impact from the accelerator.

The other managing member of Coolhouse Labs is Rob Mossburg, Harbor Springs business owner and the town's Downtown Development Authority chair. He says there has been a significant impact on the local economy, even in the first year of Coolhouse's program.

"From a real economic impact perspective, not only do area businesses feel the effects of 15 to 30 team founders in the heart of downtown, who are hanging out at our coffee shops, buying staples from our local merchants and paying rent while visiting us, but we can also feel the impact from our esteemed advisors and mentors group visiting town as well," says Mossburg.

Mentors and entrepreneurs come from locations like New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago, so the word is spreading about Harbor Springs' natural beauty and small-town charm, he says.

And while they're here, local host families often provide a social aspect to the whole experience, too. Coolhouse Labs is turning out to be the forge for all kinds of connections to the Harbor Springs community.

"One benefit that I believe we underestimated was the effect CHL had on our younger people--including those who are here for the summer only," says Mossburg. "In addition to simply enjoying our natural beauty or a lazy summer day, we found many to be engaged in our mission and offering to help with our program as fellows. This provided an educational opportunity for those with an entreprenurial or high tech interest. Suddenly, dinner table topics expanded from boating and partying to programming and pitch practice."

Such connections, the founders hope, will make Harbor Springs a destination for entrepreneurial thinking and startups of all stripes.

"The whole goal of Coolhouse is to prove that big ideas can come to life in small towns," says Breighner.

It looks like that proof will be easy to find.

Kim Eggleston is a freelance writer and editor in northern Michigan.
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