Ann Arbor – The Potential Sleeping Giant for Entrepreneurism

Every couple / few years, I head back to Ann Arbor, Michigan to spend a few days reconnecting with my alma mater and to check out the startup ecosystem.  My visit usually includes meeting with entrepreneurs, spending time with the different organizations that support entrepreneurs and guest lecturing.

I’ve always thought that Ann Arbor has all of the raw materials to become a hot bed for startup activity.  The University of Michigan is a great anchor tenant university, there are excellent students, professors and researchers and it’s a place where people want to live.  To date, I have been unpleasantly surprised with the general process, outside of some notable wins in the biotech and medical industry.  But that all might be changing.

In 2003, my trip led me to almost give up hope.  There literally was no activity on campus outside of university supported research.  I was told by one administrator that Ann Arbor would focus on biotech, medical and manufacturing and that software “was stupid.”  In meeting with students, especially in the engineering department, I felt there was more apathy toward entrepreneurship than excitement.  That trip left a very bad taste in my mouth and I wasn’t sure if / when I would return. (Outside of returning for football games.  That would be stupid to not).

In early 2009, however, I gave it another try and there were signs of life.  Community leaders (outside of paid U of M employees) began to emerge.  Community events and mentoring, as well as burgeoning campus support was seen.  I wrote a blog post here about my thoughts back then.  Instead of apathy, there was a strong level of frustration, which left me hopeful. Normally, frustrated entrepreneurs find fixes to what bothers them.

Fast forward 2.5 years and the energy and progress has leaped ahead.  I was energized by the grass roots organizations like Tech Arb and Tech Brewery.  The sheer amount of younger folks involved in company creation was exponentially higher than just a short time ago.  Instead of apathy and frustration, there was a real sense of excitement, accomplishment and hope.  Also, the whole attitude of the community seemed to have change.  Whereas Michigan has always looked poorly upon failure (which is a natural part of entrepreneurship), people that I spoke to inside and outside the innovation economy looked at these company builders as rock stars.  That, alone, is a huge component to a successful startup community and one that has been sorely lacking previously.  And instead of infighting among the different entities that try to support entrepreneurs, they were much more coordinated and congenial than they were during my last visit.  My partner, Brad, was equally impressed and wrote up a summary of his thoughts here.

There are plenty of other signs that others are noticing including the recent activity of California-based VCs funding Ann Arbor companies, Sam Zell donating $5 million to the law school for entrepreneurial studies.

There are two people, too, that really shined in my visit.  If you are part of the Ann Arbor tech scene and don’t know them – get to know them.

First up is Wes Huffstutter.  Wes works at the Tech Transfer office.  Normally, I avoid folks like this like the plague.  Not Wes.  He is totally tied into all the activity going on and is a super connector.  But he’s also a mentor.  Perhaps my favorite part of the trip was when one of the Tech Arb teams complained to Wes that he missed his mentoring office hours that day, as he and I spent the day together.  Seeing that type of reaction from a startup really showed me Wes’ range in helping out folks.  That, and he completely set Brad and I up to meet all the right people during our  trip with no work from us, whatsoever.

Second up is Dug Song.  This guy is a monster.  (Good type, think Cookie, not Godzilla).  I met Dug the last time that I was in Ann Arbor and we shared some thoughts about how to jumpstart the ecosystem.  Dug gets a ton of credit for creating and mentoring a lot of the activity locally.  If you want to see how thoughtful he is, read his open letter to Brad and I.  It talks about a lot of his and community’s accomplishments (not in a boastful way).

Oh yeah, and the weekend was fun too, as Michigan crushed Nebraska 45-17 and that didn’t suck either.

Bottom line:  Ann Arbor is getting its act together.  There is still a lot of work to be done, but I’ve never been more optimistic.