Postcard from paradise: At Coolhouse Labs, a native son incubates startups in Harbor Springs

Greetings From Harbor Springs postcard

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If Jordan Breighner speaks with a confidence and self-assurance well beyond his years, it’s what you might expect from a young man who left home in Harbor Springs at 14 for Utah, where the mountains were higher and the dream of being a world-class ski racer was more attainable. It didn’t work out that way, but he did manage to get a college degree on an accelerated schedule, work for the 2008 Obama campaign and subsequently in the White House, bounce around a few startups in New York and elsewhere before finally deciding his place was back home in northern Michigan.

Now 28, he sits in the satellite office his generation prefers – a coffee shop, this one in Petoskey – and sketches the history of Coolhouse Labs, a startup business incubator he founded, now entering its third year in Harbor Springs. People with ideas for new businesses, typically Internet-based services, apply to spend a summer nurturing them in northern Michigan. They receive $25,000 in seed funding (in exchange for a 6 percent equity stake for Coolhouse), with a chance for more money later, plus mentoring, support, housing and other perks. If they stay in Michigan, great. Most don’t, but Breighner believes the seed is planted. “We have to create a long-term view,” he said. “The cost of living is so much cheaper here than in New York or San Francisco.”

One startup, Localfu, chose to relocate to Ann Arbor from New York. It will be the Coolhouse startup to model when the incubator expands to Ann Arbor this year to take advantage of the University of Michigan community. And once Coolhouse is established there, it will run year-round, not just in the summer.

Locating Coolhouse in Harbor Springs is something he hopes will help his hometown, he said.

“We don’t have a lot of, a) young people, or b) opportunity. So what can we do to change it? Leverage what we have – this incredibly beautiful place.” Northern Michigan isn’t for everyone, but there’s something about seeing Little Traverse Bay all summer that can work magic. “People my age want to move back, but they don’t see the opportunity,” he said. “This can help change that.”

‒ Nancy Derringer

NEXT POSTCARD: Custom skis, made by hand →

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