First Impressions of Michigan’s Innovation Landscape: An Institutional Legacy, A Fragmented Entrepreneurial Community, and Some Unexpected Promising Sectors

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Last week I headed to the Detroit and Ann Arbor area to make my first visit to one of Xconomy’s newer outposts. I spoke with entrepreneurs and industry veterans, as well as academics and investors looking to jumpstart the region’s innovation engine. Some of what I saw and heard on my trip stood in stark contrast to the Boston technology landscape that I am accustomed to covering—and some was quite familiar. Read on for some of the key insights I took away from the trip.

1) Southeast Michigan lacks a well-connected, grassroots entrepreneurial culture.

It’s not that Detroit is lacking entrepreneurial talent, says Bill Volz, a business professor at Wayne State University and executive director of the Blackstone LaunchPad, an entrepreneurship program founded recently at the school. “The entrepreneurial community here—they don’t know each other at all,” Volz says. “They’re bright people and they’re interesting people. But they don’t know each other.”

It’s one thing that Detroit seems to have in common with Ann Arbor. And formally orchestrated business accelerator programs that put startups together won’t necessarily do the trick if the mindset isn’t there, says serial entrepreneur Dug Song, who’s currently CEO of Scio Security, a stealth-mode security software startup. “We don’t do nearly enough to help connect people here,” he says. “There’s not enough grassroots stuff going on. There need to be more opportunities for serendipity to happen.”

To create such opportunities, Song set up a co-working space in a former brewery building in Ann Arbor, aptly named Tech Brewery, which is now home to mobile app makers, University of Michigan biotech spinouts, cleantech startups, and software developers (including Scio Security). The co-working space is strikingly similar to Polaris Venture Partners’ Dogpatch Labs in Cambridge, MA. Song also favors events like casual hacker meetups where developers can get together without having to push toward a specific business plan. “That’s how companies happen,” he says.

Song says that the disconnectedness in the innovation community is at least in part an inheritance from the institutions that long defined the region, the big three automakers. “It’s the culture coming out of the auto industry: the culture of big, top-down institutions, silos, and big gaps between schools,” he says, pointing to the fact that … Next Page »

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4 responses to “First Impressions of Michigan’s Innovation Landscape: An Institutional Legacy, A Fragmented Entrepreneurial Community, and Some Unexpected Promising Sectors”

  1. Dug Song says:

    Thanks, Erin!

    Some more on Ann Arbor’s startup community development (from a year ago):

    Anyone in the area should join us for our flagship community event, the Ann Arbor New Tech Meetup, which has introduced 80+ companies to our 1200+ members:

    And check out for links to the 60+ geek groups organizing an average of 2-3 tech events every day in Ann Arbor, including big annual events like and

  2. Opportunities like the ones that Dug has noted are plentiful in our region. Here are a few new economy building activities for your consideration:

    The New Enterprise Forum. A grass roots organization in its 25th year.

    Ann Arbor SPARK’s calendar of events.

    Michigan Emerging Conference.

    MidAmerica Healthcare Venture Forum

    The Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, celebrating its 29th year in 2011.

    Great Lakes Entreprenuers Quest. This is a statewide business plan competition, wrapped in a calendar of workshops and mentorship.

  3. Jim Chiang says:

    I think Michigan has a great entrepreneurial community. The question is more about where the outside funding is?

    Blog at:

  4. As cofounder of an Ann Arbor startup NOT within one of MEDC’s four “holy” industries, Dug is right about missing out on IT opportunities.

    Like established entrepreneurial communities such as Boulder, SV and the Alley, we also need a culture that fosters a fail fast mind-set. Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank’s definition of a tech startup is especially appropriate here. To Steve, a startup “is a temporary organization used to search for a scalable and repeatable business model”. He says that startups fail because they execute when they should search. He also says that business plans are the leading cause of startup death, but that’s another issue….

    So to help enable the search by these temporary organizations, our region should offer a mentorship-driven, seed stage investment program like Boulder’s TechStars or Chicago’s new Excelerate. And, to enhance the ability for entrepreneurs and investors to connect, holding Open Angel Forum events (already in Boulder and seven other locations) provides entrepreneurs with access to angel investors, and also inspires high net worth individuals to become angels.