Breaking Down Barriers: A Detroit-Ann Arbor Dinner Conversation

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policies, affordability, and better transit.

“The way Southeast Michigan is carved up with all these satellite communities, it’s very hard for us to build a unified story as a region,” Song said. “That weird wall definitely exists. But if we don’t solve that problem, it will be the death of all of us. Communities are built through a mesh of organic relationships from the ground up. Institutions that exist between Ann Arbor and Detroit have always been connected in some way. But if we aren’t sending people back and forth to actually build those relationships, it’s all for naught. Unless you have people spending time with each other and going out of their way to go to Detroit or come here, or you’re sending people in either direction to help them build their companies, there’s no real community.”

Egner offered a bit of historical perspective that illustrated how far Detroit has come in the past few years: “Eight years ago, if there was anything cool going on in Detroit, I knew about it. Today, I look at how many cool things are going on and I can’t even begin to catalog them. This notion of being urban pioneers or regional pioneers for cultural change is critically important. And, Dug, you’re right—if we don’t create a culture where entrepreneurs are willing to make the connections, we’ve lost that. But I think you all need to recognize you’re on the fringe. You’re the lunatic fringe on this.”

Egner also pointed out that the innovation community is at a critical juncture in terms of making real, lasting culture change in Michigan: “Philosophers say changing a culture without a war or natural disaster will take eight to 10 generations, so if we assume this cultural change started in the ‘60s, we’re halfway through it. So as frustrating as this is, I don’t want to lose the notion that you guys are the tip of the arrow, and it’s going to be painful and you’re going to get tired, but if you retreat or don’t keep putting these issues out and multiply your numbers by bringing others in behind you, we’re going to reverse direction.”

Many people around the table agreed that, as a region and state, we’re still not telling the stories of our successes as well as we could be, which allows the perception of Michigan as a Rust Belt has-been to persist.

“Nobody knows that Southeast Michigan is a powerhouse in the photonics industry,” Roston said. “We’re just not telling the story right. I’m willing to bet that if we looked at the number of tech startups and just started marketing that, the numbers would astound all of us.”

My hope for the dinner was that something actionable would come out of it. It’s hard to tackle issues this big over the span of one meeting, but I think we’re going to take Song’s advice about making a concerted effort to send people back and forth between Ann Arbor and Detroit. I floated the idea of a version of a punk rock prom, only for people in the tech community instead of the music community. We could gather in Detroit this time, dress up, enjoy some social lubricants, cut loose, and see what happens.

What do you think? Are we totally off the mark? Drop us a line and let us know.


Thank you to our dinner guests:

Matt Bower, Partner, Varnum

Jim Boyle, Senior Consultant, Strategy and Communications, New Economy Initiative

Bob Buderi, CEO, Xconomy

MJ Cartwright, CEO, Court Innovations

Donna Doleman, Senior VP of Operations and Communications, Ann Arbor SPARK

Joan Dunbar, Associate Vice President of Technology Commercialization, Wayne State University

David Egner, Executive Director, New Economy Initiative

Maria LaLonde, Recruiting and Development Leader, Bizdom

Josh Lin, Associate, RPM Ventures

Joe Malcoun, CEO, Nutshell

Bill Mayer, VP Entrepreneurial Services, Ann Arbor SPARK

Jack Miner, Director, Venture Center, University of Michigan

Ken Nisbet, Director, Office of Technology Transfer, University of Michigan

Julia Owens, President and CEO, Atterocor

Jon Rimanelli, CEO, Detroit Aircraft Corp.

Paul Riser, Managing Director of Tech-Based Entrepreneurship, TechTown Detroit

Chris Rizik, CEO and Fund Manager, Renaissance Venture Capital Fund

Gerry Roston, Executive-In-Residence, TechTown Detroit

Ann Marie Sastry, CEO, Sakti3

Skip Simms, Senior VP, Ann Arbor SPARK

Dug Song, Co-Founder and CEO, Duo Security

Ned Staebler, Vice President for Economic Development, Wayne State University

Zach Steindler, Chief Olarchitect, Olark

Guy Suter, Co-Founder and CEO, Notion AI

Kristen Veresh, Partner, Varnum

Jordan Warzecha, CEO, Backstitch

Stefanie Warzecha, Co-Founder, Backstitch

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the Custom Content Editor for Xconomy Insight. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @

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