U-M Entrepreneurs are All in for Michigan

In the state-wide Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition that was held in Detroit this past October, U-M student and alumni startups brought home more than $650K of the total $1 million of prizes and awards. This included the grand prize of $500K that was awarded to recent U-M engineering alumni startup, Sky Specs, LLC. Perhaps even more encouraging than their success in this annual event; all five U-M affiliated teams that won at the Accelerate Michigan competition have either already established headquarters in the state or are planning to build companies hereafter that provide products and services to a globalmarket. Here’s who they are:

Grand Prize ($500,000): Sky Specs, LLC, drone safety and software technology

First Runner Up ($100,000): Cribspot, housing searching, listing and management for college students

Medical Device Winner ($25,000): AlertWatch, monitoring technology for patients in during medical operations

People’s Choice Winner ($25,000): Turtle Cell, an all in one phone case product with retractable headphones

Student First Runner Up ($5,000): HeelSecret, an insert for high heels to keep the heel from slipping

What’s driving the rapidly increasing desire for startups to take root in Michigan? The Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE) has identified a number of key influencers at the state, community and institutional level that are supporting growth in commercializing technology and new business ideas here.

First, let’s just call it like it is. Entrepreneurship in general has become really “cool” as more resources and opportunities are made available to create or recreate innovation. But what some may not realize is that Michigan was one of the first regions built around profound entrepreneurship. Long before there was a “Silicon Valley” there was Henry Ford, for example. Much of Michigan’s economic legacy has been the state’s ability to design faster, better, and more efficient ways to do just about everything from manufacturing to automotive to translational research.

The underlying principle of the “Startup Culture” is to combine the brightest human capital to the tasks of problem solving. That same philosophy has always characterized Michigan, but it now presents itself with a new generation at the forefront and an acceleration of new technology and opportunities like never before. Michigan’s latest innovation movement became a major contributor in rebuilding Detroit, creating new technology epicenters in places like Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. The overall impact of new initiatives is a rallying cry to be a part of positive change – drawing in the younger, millennial generation specifically. Entrepreneurship culture in the state of Michigan is unique in that it provides a feeling of contributing to something larger than just starting a business.

“Entrepreneurs who stay here feel like they are actually making a difference in the state,” said Tom Frank, executive director and adjunct professor of the Center for Entrepreneurship. “Whether or not innovators join existing companies or create their own, I’ve seen that the portfolio of resources and support provided to our community offer everything a researcher or student could want in realizing a dream of making a difference; be that a scientific, social, or economic impact.”

Government organizations, such as the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), are actively supporting this movement, and our students and faculty are directly benefiting from these programs designed to commercialize translational research. The CFE administers many programs, including the NSF’s I-Corps and Michigan’s state-funded M-TRAC, that focus on helping university technology successfully transition to market. Faculty, researchers and aspiring entrepreneurs not only get funding, but also extensive training and network building that increases their opportunities to develop a business in the state. With the help of the MEDC, the Center for Entrepreneurship is now teaching other universities and organizations across Michigan to run their own commercialization programs. It’s spreading like wildfire.

“Being at (the University of) Michigan has led us to some of our best connections,” said John Hennessy (U-M B.S. ’11 and MS ’12 Biomedical Engineering, MS Entrepreneurship ’14), CEO and co-founder of Elegus Technologies, a U-M startup that has recently received national attention in USA Today and Giz Magazine for their breakthrough battery safety technology. “Funding and training from M-TRAC/MEDC and I-Corps helped us reach huge milestones and build relationships in the state that are crucial to our success.”

Entrepreneurship’s “coolness” is not just a feeling, it’s backed by growing initiatives in funding and training at the State and University level that make it possible for startups to succeed here. According to U-M student and alumni entrepreneurs, however, the biggest influence on the decision to stay in Michigan is the unparalleled and unified network of people and resources that come with being a part of The University of Michigan community.

“The U-M network has been a critical part of the growth of our business,” said Danny Ellis (U-M BSE ’10, MSE ’13), CEO and co-founder of Sky Specs. “Sky Specs began after the WUST trip with CFE in 2012, followed by six months in TechArb. The network we built through these programs, and through experiences with the College of Engineering, made the decision to stay in Michigan easy. We have tremendous support and talent resources here, and we look forward to working with local manufacturers as we scale our business.”

Jason Okrasinski (U-M BBA ’13), co-founder of Cribspot agreed: “The connections we made at U-M really influenced our entrepreneurial experience. Michigan has a supportive startup community and it’s an ideal place to launch your business as a first-time entrepreneur.”

Talent, mentorship, camaraderie: The University of Michigan student, faculty and alumni innovation initiatives and start-ups are vivid examples of what it means to leverage a network. And it’s paying off, literally. The Center for Entrepreneurship strives to create world class curriculum, training, community and capital together in ways that make Michigan the best choice for incubating success and celebrating that success in every way possible. It’s what makes U-M entrepreneurs go all in for Michigan. And the results are starting to speak for themselves.