Automation Alley Drives Toward Autonomous Future with New Director

As Automation Alley prepares to host its annual awards gala this week, it’s a good time to look at what the organization is up to and what progress it has made since its founding nearly 20 years ago—and how the recent boom in autonomous technology has affected the organization’s long-term strategy.

Automation Alley—a technology trade association with a mission to connect companies and organizations with talent, resources, and funding—also has a new leader (more on that below). The organization’s larger mission is to bolster Southeast Michigan’s economy and increase the global competitiveness of Michigan’s tech companies.

Automation Alley began with a conversation in 1998. Members of the local business community met with Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and discussed concerns about a perceived shortage of tech workers. In response, Patterson hired the Anderson Economic Group to conduct a study examining the region’s technical jobs. The report found that there were hundreds of thousands of tech jobs in Southeast Michigan—numbers that compared favorably to Silicon Valley and other national technology hubs at the time. So Patterson traveled to Silicon Valley in search of ideas for how to strengthen the area’s tech sector.

Patterson officially launched Automation Alley in 1999. It opened a brick and mortar office in 2004  and has been growing since. In August, founding executive director Ken Rogers retired after 17 years on the job and the mantle was passed to Tom Kelly, previously the organization’s chief operations officer. I spoke to Kelly recently to get an idea of Automation Alley’s work over the past year.

Kelly was hired by Automation Alley in 2014 to lead the 7Cs program for advanced manufacturing startups. The program takes entrepreneurs through a customized seven-step acceleration process that includes coaching, resources, and capital. As COO, Kelly also oversaw Automation Alley’s venture investment fund. 7Cs is now in its second year. “We should have 20 companies that have participated by the end of the year,” Kelly said. “The program has been wildly successful.”

Kelly said so far, 7Cs participants tend to be “a little older, around for a while or not getting much traction. We’re looking for things that are ‘sticky’ to Michigan so they don’t get scooped up by the coasts once they grow up.”

Automation Alley made several significant startup investments in Michigan this year, including $22,000 in Bloomfield Hills-based healthtech startup QuipzOR;  $5,000 in TSP Enterprises, a Farmington Hills-based creator of a portable cargo management system; and $32,000 in Blackbourne Worldwide, an artificial intelligence and cybersecurity startup based in Detroit. To date, Automation Alley has invested a total of more than $9 million in 58 Michigan-based tech companies. Dom Holmes, who was recently promoted to manager of entrepreneurship and innovation, will now manage the fund and the 7Cs program.

Taking over as the association’s new COO is Pavan Muzumdar, who comes to Automation Alley with an extensive background in organizational management. Muzumdar will also help Kelly in the implementation of Industry 4.0, the organization’s new strategy “as we shift our focus towards helping Southeast Michigan companies navigate the rapid changes involved with smart manufacturing,” Kelly said. The new strategy reflects Automation Alley’s desire to highlight Michigan’s potential as a national leader in the adoption of of advanced manufacturing technologies.

This year, Automation Alley also launched the Michigan Autonomous Systems Collaborative (MASC), an initiative funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment. Through MASC, Automation Alley will be responsible for determining how to best grow the region’s robotics and autonomous systems industries.

Kelly said MASC was created to bring together statewide entities working to develop autonomous systems technologies related to advanced manufacturing and create opportunities for networking and sharing best practices to help startups bring new technologies to market.

“It’s a partnership with Macomb County designed to build community around autonomous systems, and that includes mobility,” Kelly said, referring to the catch-all word used to describe ride-sharing, car-sharing, driverless cars, and other autonomous technologies. “The military will have a ton of non-consumer oriented autonomous vehicles and drones, which is a different animal from driverless cars. The DOD is feeling a little left out, since their needs differ from the auto industry.” Connecting the military’s efforts to those of auto manufacturers “just makes Michigan stronger,” he added.

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