Entrepreneurship in Ann Arbor, Michigan

I just returned from Ann Arbor where I was on a "quest" for the center of entrepreneurship, startups and innovation.

It’s always been a thesis of mine that Ann Arbor should have a vibrant startup and entrepreneurship ecosystem.  It’s a lot like Boulder in many respects. 

That being said, my alma mater has previously disappointed me in their lack of innovation and culture surrounding early stage software and IT.  They’ve been great in some areas like life sciences and manufacturing, but for software / IT / Internet, there hasn’t been a lot of action.  Clearly I’m biased as a VC that invests in these areas, but so do the majority of VCs in this country and it always felt a bit odd why Ann Arbor wasn’t targeting these sectors.

This time was different.  There was a lot more energy surrounding software; from the engineering school, to the business school to even LS&A.  In fact, whereas two years ago there were few organizations on campus supporting these activities, now there are several that are deeply engaged in helping good folks with good ideas out. 

I gave a lecture one night to a group at the business school outlining my thoughts on what makes a good early-stage innovation and startup ecosystem.  While I was my usual rambling mess, Mark Maynard of the tech transfer office wrote a cogent and thoughtful summary.  If you missed the presentation, he pretty much gets all the points.  In the future, I plan on doing some writing on what makes a good startup ecosystem, so stay tuned.

For those of you in Ann Arbor and are looking for where to turn to for support, I’d suggest some / all of the following:

www.a2geeks.com and www.annarborstartups.com – both brought to you by Dug Song who was the most inspiring person that I met in Ann Arbor this trip.  He is deeply engaged trying to coordinate all of the startup activity on campus and he is well-experienced in having been a startup junkie and hacker all of his life. 

The Center for Entrepreneurship – although housed in the engineering school, the center is working hard to coordinate all students and professors, regardless of school affiliation on campus.  The fact that Marc Weiser from RPM Ventures is on the board (who is an early-stage VC, including software investor) should help this mission.

There were many other organizations, too and not mentioning them is no slight, rather these two organizations seemed to be the easiest for the entrepreneur to get directly plugged in;  the first two be the consummate grass roots efforts while the latter being a more formal offering. 

In summary, there are some positive signs of life in Ann Arbor in the early-stage software / IT / Internet ecosystem.  I think they have all the tools to become an important investing geography, but only time and their collective efforts will tell.  As a former long-time resident, I sincerely wish them the best of luck and offer any help that I may give in the future.  Thanks Ann Arbor for being such great hosts.