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

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the last entrepreneur in Detroit.”

3) The quest for innovation should extend beyond the sectors that the government has bet on.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a corporation set up as an agreement between state and local governments, has particularly targeted four industries as sources of transformation in Michigan: alternative energy, life sciences, homeland security and defense, and advanced manufacturing. But several of the people I spoke with believe that the quest for innovation should extend beyond those four sectors.

“I know what kind of impact the IT sector can have,” Song says. “We’ve just had a hard time adapting that to the culture here. You see a lot more emphasis on the four magic sectors, where there’s a chance of putting the manufacturing sectors to work. The challenge is that a lot of them have left or are leaving. Now you can outsource a lot of manufacturing; hardware companies are not even making their own stuff. The smarts are really in the software.”

Ann Arbor and southeastern Michigan have the danger of playing the role for California’s big tech businesses that Bangalore, India, has played for other U.S.-based companies—that of the call center and customer-service outpost, Song says. Even Google’s presence in the region supplies more sales-end jobs than technology and development, Song says. “People are grateful for the jobs, but that’s not what’s going to transform the region.”

Volz says innovation in less sexy areas could also help include those not trained in software and high tech. He hopes innovative ideas that transform traditional sectors—like the food and beverage industry or hygiene and cleaning in hospitals and labs—come out of the Blackstone LaunchPad at Wayne State. He’s looking to open the program to a diverse array of entrepreneurs—from those working on iPhone apps to those looking to develop biodegradable cleaning products. “I would like to be open to people who are interested in doing what’s the least glamorous thing you can think of,” he says. “The techie stuff would be wonderful. It just strikes me that everybody has clamored to that.”

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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.