Bridging the Gap Between Ann Arbor and Detroit: A Proposition

The University of Michigan’s Office of Tech Transfer hosted its semi-annual Entrepreneurs Engage yesterday, and the turnout appeared to be even larger than the one held in February. The unconference format calls for the audience to suggest discussion topics, and then attendees spend about 45 minutes in each discussion—or they don’t.

There are only a few rules: Vote with your feet, which means you go to a discussion group, contribute, and if you lose interest, you find another discussion group. The people that show up are the right people to have in the discussion, and if the conversation peters out before the official end time, that’s OK—just wander over to the food or drink and get to networking.

With so few rules to hamper the free flow of ideas, discussion groups were lively. There were breakout groups about making better and more creative use of workspaces, finding early capital, and forging ties between tech entrepreneurs and other startups outside the tech bubble. A lot of people also wanted to talk about attracting and retaining talent—it’s perhaps the most pressing issue now that we seem to have created a legitimate tech community in Southeast Michigan.

But I was drawn to the discussion topic posed by two different attendees: How do we bridge the gap between Ann Arbor’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem? I wrote about this same topic when I covered the February unconference. The major difference this time around was the number of people in the group—about six times as many as before, including folks from Bizdom, the New Economy Initiative, the University of Michigan, and the startup community.

Of course, what came up first is Detroit’s image problem. In an earlier discussion session, I had heard an Ann Arborite declare that his city would never officially connect itself to Detroit because Ann Arbor is “good” and Detroit is “bad.”

Well, sir, that’s a fairly subjective pronouncement. What you consider good may come off to me as boring. What you consider bad might seem vibrant to me. I’m just as frustrated as any Detroiter about our ongoing infrastructure and public safety issues, but to simply say it’s good vs. bad shows me that you probably haven’t spent much time in Detroit, and certainly not lately.

The fact is, the private sector and philanthropic community are staging a comeback, and it’s working. Young people, perhaps not as burdened by provincialism as their parents and grandparents, are interested in seeing what the city has to offer. Many of us in Detroit have heard it from visiting friends or family: “Wow, I didn’t know there was so much going on here.”

And, of course, Ann Arbor and Detroit need each other, particularly their tech communities. Detroit has office space Ann Arbor doesn’t; Ann Arbor has talent Detroit doesn’t. For God’s sake, we’re less than an hour from one another. What has to happen to foster an increase in collaboration?

The discussion group tossed the idea around and around, and we were finally able to land on a starting point: transportation. Why is there no practical bus or rail service between the two cities? Who’s going to step up and make it happen? (Detroit Bus Company, we nominated you.) What we envisioned was something similar to what Google does to get its employees back and forth from San Francisco to Mountain View.

So, Xconomy volunteered to take a survey. Your love for Ann Arbor doesn’t mean you have to avoid Detroit, and vice versa. If there was an affordable, convenient shuttle bus service that offered a stable wi-fi connection and a plethora of travel time options, would anybody use it? Click here to take the survey.

Have any more ideas for how we can bridge the gap between Ann Arbor and Detroit? Leave them in the comments below.

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9 responses to “Bridging the Gap Between Ann Arbor and Detroit: A Proposition”

  1. Calvin Schemanski says:

    I went to college at UM and have been working in AA for the last year. I never went to Detroit in those 5 years until a few weeks ago for a startup accelerator. It was not what I expected at all. There’s an infectious buzz of rebuilding happening. You can tell that it’s got the potential to host the growth of entrepreneurial companies that Ann Arbor wouldn’t be able (or willing) to support.

    A physical link would be a great start and I would love to jump on a bus to train to Detroit; especially if I could use it as an office along the way!

  2. vielmetti says:

    People in Ann Arbor use the AirRide service to get to Metro Aiport; it wouldn’t be a great stretch to imagine that service continuing on to downtown Detroit for airport travelers. That’s the closest to an existing service that I can imagine being stretched to get to Detroit. If it’s priced at airport pricing, though, it might be expensive compared to the cost of just driving to the city.

  3. dugsong says:

    Three things:

    – Transit. We’d all see a lot more of each other if we could jump on a train to do it.

    – Events. The monthly a2newtech event is the regular bridge to Ann Arbor for Detroit investors and founders, and spawned events like DNewTech as well. We should do like Boulder, and work harder to combine our events like their BDNewTech rotation includes Denver.

    – Attitude. In broad strokes, Detroit is a great place to be if you’re under 30 / childless; Ann Arbor if you’re raising a family. Neither city has it all, and developing a regional focus requires willpower to overcome the lack of infrastructure and provincial attitudes to establish the network of personal relationships that build a startup ecosystem.

  4. m@ says:

    This seems like an effective place to plug the awesome, awesome work done by the folks at Freshwater Railway (

  5. These are all great comments — thanks for posting. I think I’ll suggest to Xconomy HQ that the next event we host in SE Michigan should be an Ann Arbor-Detroit mixer for startups and entrepreneurs.

  6. BrawnyLad says:

    It is great to hear the enthusiasm from young people about the burned-out hulk that is Detroit. All-the-same, my sense is that it is a badly broken place. Incredible to think that a century ago it was a preeminent U.S. city.

    • Your “sense” is that Detroit is a badly broken, burned out hulk? I think you need to actually visit the city. After all, young people aren’t generally known for wanting to move to places that offer nothing but smoking ruins.