Countdown to Michigan 2031: All In On Cleantech

Michigan may have potential in medical devices and software but in the end, the state’s high tech future, for better for worse, is really tied to cleantech.

For one thing, it offers the most natural and logical extension of Michigan’s core expertise in automobiles/manufacturing, experts say. Think lithium batteries, electric cars, next generation engines equipped with software that smartly manages energy consumption.

“I think Michigan has a great chance at cleantech because it so tied with transportation,” says Chris Rizik, CEO and fund manager of Renaissance Venture Capital Fund in Ann Arbor, MI. Rizik is a featured panelist for Thursday’s Xconomy: Michigan 2031, a forum for the state’s best investors and entrepreneurs to envision the future of Michigan’s high tech economy and brainstorm ways to make that vision a reality.

But here’s what really pushes cleantech ahead of the pack: unlike medical devices and software, cleantech enjoys significant financial and institutional support from both Uncle Sam and Michigan’s top politicians.

Last fall, Watertown, M-based A123Systems opened a lithium battery plant in Livonia, MI, thanks a $249 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and $125 million in refundable tax credits from Michigan’s 21st Century Jobs Fund. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, along with then Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, attended the plant’s opening ceremony.

In 2009, Michigan established the Centers for Energy Excellence program, which provides $45 million over three years to fund technology commercialization and research between companies and universities and national laboratories.

Later this month, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and University of Michigan are hosting a conference exploring Michigan’s investments into manufacturing and clean energy.

“Though Michigan’s research infrastructure suffered during the deep recession that forced major cutbacks in the research funded by the auto industry, the state has leveraged local investment, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [federal stimulus] funding, and the strengths of its universities to begin rapidly rebuilding manufacturing by investing in new industries,” the DOE said on the conference website. “Many of these new investments are in clean energy, and the DOE is interested in learning from this natural experiment in rapid rebuilding of R&D and manufacturing capability.”

Not surprisingly, local cleantech startups attracting investor cash are developing auto-related technologies. Khosla Ventures, for example, is backing lithium ion battery maker Sakti3 in Ann Arbor, MI, and EcoMotors in Allen Park, MI, which is developing a more energy efficient engine. (Sakti3 CEO Ann Marie Sastry will be joining ups at Michigan 2031 as well.) General Motors has invested $5 million in wireless charging startup Powermat in Commerce Township, MI.

But is there more to Michigan cleantech than just greener cars? … Next Page »

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