Xconomy’s Michigan 2031 Forum: The Juice Is Worth The Squeeze

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

What’s the best way to snap a state out of a post-industrial, Rust Belt funk? Get together about a dozen of your smartest and most successful friends and neighbors and ask them to envision a vibrant high tech economy twenty years into the future.

That’s exactly what Xconomy did last week with Michigan 2031, our first such event in the state to stimulate a discussion on innovation and economic development. The forum drew about 80 people to TechTown in Detroit to network with luminaries like Sakti3 founder Ann Marie Sastry, Esperion Therapeutics CEO Roger Newton, and Beringea co-founder Charlie Rothstein.

The forum ran longer than expected and people didn’t seem to want to leave. Who could blame them? After absorbing the insights of Michigan’s brightest entrepreneurs and investors, you couldn’t help but feel a little juiced. And that feeling is hard to let go.

We asked each of our main panelists about what Michigan needs to build that high tech economy. Below is a quick and dirty summary of their responses.

David Cole, chairman emeritus, Center for Automotive Research– Workforce training and education

Gone are the days when all you needed was a high school education, if even that, to win a high paying job with generous benefits on the automobile assembly line. Today’s knowledge economy requires higher levels of education, even in the auto industry which requires engineers and software designers.

Roger Newton, CEO, Esperion Therapeutics– Communication

Michigan is less of a state than a region of fragmented pockets of innovation and economic development, each with their own to-do list. To build critical mass, these pockets need to come together.

“I don’t think we’re connected enough,” Newton says. “C’mon! We’re all Michiganders for Pete’s sake!”

Newton criticized the Michigan Economic Development Corp, calling the state’s economic development arm “an island in itself” that does not promote lifesciences. He did, however, think MEDC’s decision to open regional offices a positive step.

Ann Marie Sastry, CEO/Founder, Sakti3– Global view

Michigan needs to set its sights (and ambitions) beyond its borders.

“If you’re good at what you do, then people will want to join you,” Sastry says. “Don’t be afraid to look for world class people. You got to make global connections.”

Especially if you’re competing in a global, tech-driven economy.

“There is no separation between high tech and manufacturing,” she says. “It’s one word.”

Charlie Rothstein, co-founder, Beringea– Money, money, money

Beringea, a venture capital/private equity firm, doesn’t have much competition in Michigan. And that’s not a good thing.

“It’s embarrassing that Beringea is the largest source of capital” in the state, Rothstein says.

Beringea has a difficult time convincing even local large investors, including endowments and pension funds, to finance Michigan companies.

Success is the best way to break that reluctance.

“It’s up to all of us to [achieve] success to convince the institutional market that Michigan (companies) can (generate) returns,” he says.