Sakti3, NextEnergy Represent MI at First-Ever White House Demo Day

Xconomist Ann Marie Sastry, founder of the Ann Arbor, MI-based advanced battery startup Sakti3, has collected many accolades during her career. But this week might have been the first time she got an in-person “atta girl” from the leader of the free world.

Sastry was in Washington, DC, Tuesday for the first-ever White House Demo Day. The event, hosted by President Barack Obama, was meant to showcase the nation’s most promising technologies as well as the diversity of America’s tech founders. Unlike most at demo day events, where companies pitch their innovations to a room full of investors and network with their contemporaries, the White House participants were telling their companies’ creation stories and highlighting their technological achievements to a very elite audience.

“Being invited to talk to the president and the White House staff is a very deep honor for all of us at Sakti3,” she said. “How often does the president tell you to keep up the good work?” (Check out the video below for more from their conversation.)

The demo day event seemed to confirm the Obama administration’s desire to highlight smaller tech companies creating good-paying jobs, and those companies doing so inclusively. After all, study after study proves that diversity is vital to spurring innovation. As the female founder of a tech company, Sastry is somewhat of an anomaly in her field—only about 3 percent of tech ventures are led by women—and she said inclusivity is a bedrock of Sakti3’s corporate culture.

“We’re a very diverse organization, and as such, we offer one model of how to be inclusive,” Sastry explained. “By collecting stories and examples of inclusivity, the government can be more effective in directing programmatic funding. It’s a deep honor to be thought of as a role model, and we’ll provide whatever insights we can.”

Sakti3 takes a two-prong approach to cultivating an inclusive team. Its management asks the recruiters the company works with to help make sure there’s a diverse pool of applicants. The company also makes it clear in its employee handbook and other official materials that it values diversity.

Sastry and her hiring managers “search every corner of the planet” to find qualified candidates—they go to universities and make the case to students about to graduate and they’re active in trade organizations. Sakti3 has learned over the years, Sastry said, that a company can’t simply wait for a diverse workplace to happen; it takes effort and a proactive approach.

“We still face issues of deficits in the pool of available colleagues,” Sastry said. “It’s both a hiring issue and pipeline issue. You have to consciously want to have a diverse workplace. It’s important to be transparent about unconscious bias and be clear with recruiting partners.”

Sakti3 is also an example of a company that have grown out of state and federally funded university research, and it highlights the kind of success that can be achieved when the public contributes money to science and technology development. Sastry was a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Michigan when she started her company.

 

Sastry and the crew from Sakti3 weren’t the only White House demo day participants from Michigan. NextEnergy, the Detroit-based non-profit helping to accelerate transportation and energy technologies in the state, was announced as a winner of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Growth Accelerator Fund Competition. As such, NextEnergy was awarded $50,000, and CEO Jean Redfield said the organization will use the grant to spur development of Michigan’s smart cities cluster.

Redfield said NextEnergy will serve as a bridge between the sectors involved in smart cities technology—energy, automotive/mobility, infrastructure, and communications—and the “innovation pipeline” working to support those technologies, including startups, research universities, and national labs.

“We’re helping to drive investment in these technologies by connecting startups in the pipeline with market opportunities in the existing global supply chain in energy and transportation,” Redfield said. “It can be a very long leap and hard to break in to. The SBA grant is about identifying and convening players in the cluster and putting together partnerships to do demonstration projects and co-development work.”

Redfield said Michigan’s long history with the auto industry make it a place ripe to develop the technologies needed to fuel smart cities. Redfield was also happy to see Sakti3, a former NextEnergy client, being praised at the White House demo day event.

“Michigan startups and service providers getting this kind of recognition is very exciting,” she added. “It shows our ecosystem is vibrant and our startups are investible.”

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