Talking Ag Tech, Bridging the Ann Arbor-Detroit Gap at U-M Unconference

The premise of the Entrepreneurs Engage unconference held at the University of Michigan yesterday may sound a little hokey to the uninitiated: The audience suggests breakout-group topics, and then folks spend about 45 minutes in each discussion—or they don’t. “You vote with your feet,” said emcee (and Xconomist) Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations. “Go to a station, contribute, and if you lose interest, find another station. Whoever shows up at the station are the right people who are supposed to be there, and it ends when it ends.”

It turns out the unconference format is perfect for an engaged crowd with an entrepreneurial bent, like the one that was at the North Campus Research Complex yesterday. A nice array of Xconomists were spotted in the invitation-only crowd—including Dug Song, Chris Rizik, Jennifer Baird, and Ken Nisbet, whose U-M tech transfer office co-sponsored Entrepreneurs Engage with the Michigan Venture Capital Association—and Nisbet said he was thrilled with the turnout, which he estimated to be 20 percent higher than the first unconference held last June.

The first breakout session I chose to participate in revolved around the challenge of getting rural and agricultural entrepreneurs connected to, well, the people in the room and the various parts of the entrepreneurial ecosystem they represent. The topic was suggested by Diane Durance from Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest, who has been working to get aquaculture going in Michigan but has encountered significant roadblocks, mainly having to do with establishing a supply chain. “I think a lot of rural Michigan towns are in trouble,” she told the group. “The average age of farmers in Michigan is something like 65. When they go away, what does that mean?”

It’s a fact that Michigan is one of the most agriculturally diverse states in the nation and Michigan State University is a leader in developing agricultural biotech. “We’re really good at science and marketing, but not starting businesses,” Durance added.

There has to be a way to get kids interested in agricultural entrepreneurship, John Woell from Albion College agreed. He says his university is full of bright, enthusiastic “farm kids” who wouldn’t know the first step to take if they wanted to purse an ag tech startup. The group agreed that the locavore movement has helped spark some youthful interest in food tech and online supply chain management, such as the Ann Arbor startups Real Time Farms and LocalOrbit.

Joe Licavoli from Ann Arbor SPARK said, “In Ann Arbor, this stuff might not be sexy, and that’s why we need the state to take the lead. How do you push people who moved to urban areas for jobs back into rural areas? We have to change our mindset. We have to buy, and buy, and buy from local and state vendors and stop buying foreign goods.”

Luke Pinkerton, founder and CTO of Helix Steel, which is a U-M spinout company, said he thinks the concept of lean manufacturing has to be applied to rural entrepreneurship and ag tech. Manufacturing isn’t cool, he said, but we can’t just be a knowledge-based economy—we need to make things again. He said his company has had great success at its plant in Grand Rapids by getting its employees involved in innovating the way they produce their goods. “We’re not doing what Henry Ford did, pushing two buttons and wasting their minds all day. We pay them for their ideas. Some employees have walked away with $10,000 checks.”

Dawn White of Accio Energy agreed, and said the craft brewing model could be very successful if applied to agricultural entrepreneurship. “There’s lots in common with ag-type businesses,” she said, pointing out that craft brewing has been exploding in popularity and profits. “Right now, there are no tools for these very isolated [agricultural entrepreneurial] leaders. We need pilot facilities. We need an ecosystem.”

Here’s a video of the first unconference held at U-M last June. Story continues below.

The steam engine whistle that marked the suggested end of the first session blew, and after a bit of networking and noshing, it was on to session two. I chose a topic suggested by Rizik: How do we bridge the gap between the Ann Arbor and Detroit entrepreneurial ecosystems? Rizik had to dash out of the unconference early, so that left a small group that included myself, my fellow Detroit-based biz/tech reporter Jon Zemke, Troy-based investor William Raudwerdink, and a young woman who recently moved to Ann Arbor from Philadelphia to work for Swift Biosciences.

In true unconference form, our discussion was heavy on anecdotes, speculation, and even a little bit of gossip. The Philly transplant said she was warned by Ann Arborites not to go to Detroit because it was too dangerous and, besides, they said, Ann Arbor has everything Detroit does and more. She ignored that advice and has since fallen in love with Detroit, and said she spends more time there after work hours than she does in Ann Arbor.

Raudwerdink praised the efforts of Detroit Venture Partners (DVP) and credited them for injecting some much-needed entrepreneurial energy into the city. An older gentleman who has lived in cities all over the country, Raudwerdink’s a fan of Detroit and plans to run a 5K in Hamtramck this weekend where participants are given a paczki and a beer instead of the traditional t-shirt or water bottle.

Raudwerdink told two stories that he thought represented the old way of thinking about Detroit and the new way. The old way: He went with a friend some years ago to look at a house for sale in the Boston Edison neighborhood, one of the finest in the city. The realtor showed up but refused to take the prospective buyer inside until a police escort showed up. The cop came, checked the house for squatters, and, after the all-clear was given, they proceeded with the tour. Needless to say, with a process that frightening, Raudwerdink’s friend didn’t buy the house.

More recently, Raudwerdink took a well-known Ann Arbor family—“so well known that if I said their name, you’d all recognize it”—out for a dinner meeting in the Greektown section of downtown Detroit. The wife was charmed by the hustle and bustle of that part of the city, which is also close to where the Detroit Lions and Tigers play. “We should come back for a baseball game,” the wife urged the husband. It then came out in conversation that this family, who had lived 45 miles up the road from Detroit for 20 years, had never once been to a Tigers game. I unfortunately hear stories like this more often than I should.

It’s a hard, deeply entrenched stereotype to break, this idea that Detroit doesn’t have anything to offer Ann Arbor, and it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Dug Song and I recently talked at length about Detroit and how much he loves the city. Maybe it’s time for places like Tech Brewery to lead a field trip to Detroit, and then maybe DVP could host one to check out the soon-to-open skate park Song’s spent the last few years building. Now, especially with the Madison Building churning out startups at a steady pace, Detroit’s entrepreneurs have a lot in common with Ann Arbor’s.

Actually, Detroit does have a lot to offer Ann Arbor—a soul, a drive, and a gritty sense of DIY innovation that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. Sure, Ann Arbor may have more organic grocery stores than Detroit does, but I bet it doesn’t have 5Ks that involve thousand-calorie pastries and beer. Detroit can likewise benefit from the incredible depth of knowledge, entrepreneurial success, and investment capital in Ann Arbor. Content will go up early next week on the Entrepreneurs Engage website that will enable further discussion. There’s no excuse—let’s get started bridging the gap to bring these two entrepreneurial ecosystems closer.

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2 responses to “Talking Ag Tech, Bridging the Ann Arbor-Detroit Gap at U-M Unconference”

  1. Dug Song says:

    Actually, Ann Arbor does have an annual 5k Twinkie run and a local Hash House Harriers chapter. But who’s counting? ;-)

    It’s true, there is a cultural and infrastructural gap separating the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor from the D. One day, I hope to see the hard line at 275 erased by something like

  2. How could I forget Hash Bash?! That freshwater rail idea is awesome. Might make a good Xconomy story, in fact. Thanks for the tip, Dug!