Breaking Down Barriers: A Detroit-Ann Arbor Dinner Conversation

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head of University of Michigan’s tech transfer office. Also on hand were Renaissance Venture Fund’s Chris Rizik and Paul Riser, who heads technology-based entrepreneurship efforts at TechTown, along with his boss, Ned Staebler. Ann Marie Sastry, founder and CEO of Sakti3, joined us fresh off a trip to Washington, DC, to hang out with President Obama at the White House. Ann Arbor SPARK and Bizdom were also at the table, along with founders from some of the startups they’ve helped nurture. (There’s a full list of our dinner attendees at the bottom of the post. We thank them for joining us, and we thank Varnum for sponsoring the dinner.)

A few common themes emerged—the serious need for executive talent, the harmful perception that people with kids can’t move to Detroit because there are no good schools, the poor job the region does marketing itself to other innovation communities and the world at large, the abysmal state of regional public transit—and there were a lot of really great points made. This first dinner was mostly about framing the issue from the innovation community perspective, not about hard answers. We hope to get more of those as we continue the series. But for now, here are some highlights:

On the executive talent issue, Joe Malcoun, co-founder and CEO of Ann Arbor’s Nutshell, agreed with Duo Security’s Dug Song that management skills—particularly, the lack of upper-level executive talent needed to run multimillion-dollar startups—was hampering the region in general. “We can’t hire people from California if they look at our state as regressive,” Malcoun said.

Staebler, who also serves as vice president of economic development for Wayne State University, thinks policy changes at the political level regarding how Michigan attracts and retains talent are crucial to the state’s growth. “That’s why the Ann Arbor-Detroit pipeline is so important,” he said. “It could be an amazing talent pipeline for the state, but instead it’s an amazing pipeline of talent to California. We need to move it east instead of west.”

“The talent thing is huge,” Malcoun agreed, going on to say that there are lots of things people can’t control—global economic forces, the state of public education, the glacial pace of transit improvements—but what Michigan innovators can and should align on are things like localized talent attraction programs. Nutshell, he said, is preparing to go on a hiring spree in the coming months and is developing its own in-house strategies for how to find employees that fit the company’s culture. Duo Security, Song said, is doing something similar.

When I asked the table what they think is preventing greater collaboration between the ecosystems of Detroit and Ann Arbor, the answers varied. Transit was a big one, and so was that invisible forcefield that Roston referred to—the one that has people in Ann Arbor saying, “We have everything we need here. Why would we go to Detroit?” Or, as a gentleman at an entrepreneurial conference put it to me once: “Why would Ann Arbor want to associate itself with a bad, losing brand like Detroit?”

“I’m not originally from this area, but I’ve met a number of people born and raised in Ann Arbor that have never been to Detroit,” Roston said. “I don’t know what it is, but there seems to be a reluctance by a large number of people in Ann Arbor to go to Detroit.”

“Ten years ago, I couldn’t get a 22-year-old to come to Detroit,” the NEI’s Egner said. “Now, that’s not a problem. Now, it’s how do you get the 35-year-old who’s not just excited and smart, but has some experience? To me, it all comes down to schools. I can’t tell you how many people I know who are in this spot in Detroit—they’re getting married, they want kids, and the first thing they’re thinking of is, ‘OK, what do I do now? I want to stay in Detroit, but my good school choices are so limited.’ If we could solve that issue, that would go a long way toward making it really comfortable for Ann Arbor companies to open Detroit branches.”

To Song, the keys to success for Southeast Michigan are smart development … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the Custom Content Editor for Xconomy Insight. You can reach her at Follow @Xconomy

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