The Explosive Growth of Ann Arbor's Favorite Tech Week: Get Ready For 2019 Tech Trek & Hackathon
By Laura Cowan
Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.
Tech Talk 2018. Photo courtesy Ann Arbor Spark.
"Five years ago we kept hearing from people, 'We give Spark funding to have this high-tech culture in Ann Arbor, and we don’t see any of these businesses," says Jenn Cornell Queen, VP of Marketing at business incubator Ann Arbor Spark. "For instance, AR startup Spellbound graduated to a space above Arbor Brewing, but you might not know they were up there. You work down the street but you don’t necessarily look up, or realize that Pillar and Ithaka are in downtown buildings." It's true. Ithaka, the company that runs popular academic database JSTOR, has been downtown for years, but only just last year ordered a sign for display outside alongside nextdoor Llamasoft.
Christina York, founder of Spellbound AR that creates augmented reality tech to distract kids during ER procedures, explains the tech to a visitor during Tech Trek 2018. Courtesy photo Ann Arbor Spark.
Ann Arbor Tech Trek started just a few years ago, as a way to help people connect with the growth of Ann Arbor tech and connect companies, job seekers, and colleagues in an industry known for keeping its head down focused on latest projects without a lot of communication down the street. It's grown.
Jenn Cornell Queen, VP of Marketing at Ann Arbor Spark, helps organize the a2Tech360 week and events.
"We had 30 businesses initially," Queen says. "We thought 100 people would be great, but the first year we had 500 people. That validated demand and need in the community. Last year we had 80 companies and 6,000 people for the event."
How did Tech Trek go from trick or treating for geeks to a week-long city-wide event that attracts thousands? Queen, who helps organize the event, is a part of planning this year, and is amazed at how quickly the event has ballooned. "Two years ago in exit surveys, people said it was great to do Tech Trek but it would be great to hear from these people not just see the spaces. So we considered Tech Talk. Then Live at Tech Trek became the concert for something to do between Tech Talk and Tech Trek.”
"We had 30 businesses initially. We thought 100 people would be great.... Last year we had 80 companies and 6,000 people for the event."
Jenn Cornell Queen, VP Marketing Ann Arbor Spark
Live at Tech Trek Concert, 2018. Courtesy photo Spark.
“We had interest in mobility tech, so we said why don’t we invite mobility companies to display their assets? Then all these people were coming up and saying, 'What about looking at companies that are fastest growing?' so we added [our Fast Track] tech awards for programming and the university wanted to join in, and that’s how our 2029 event was born.”
The wraparound event A2Tech360 was born last year: “We had the Mobility Summit, 2028 event, Tech Trek, Tech Talk. This year we have 14 events that week,” Queen says.
An electric car from May Mobility on Mobility Row at Tech Trek 2018. Courtesy photo Spark.
Finally, the geeks wanted back in on their own event. "Tech companies say they don’t get to go on the trek and network because we’re working the event," Queen says, "so the idea for the Hackathon was born."
Tech Trek is now the entire week of June 2-9 around downtown Ann Arbor. The Spark a2Tech360 website has a detailed schedule about times and event locales for the entire Trek and surrounding events, which include a conference on women in tech, networking with visionaries, student presentations and more. Cronicle will be live covering the Tech Trek and Hackathon at Ithaka, to promote some of the participating people and companies you might not have time to come down and see.
Participants at Tech Trek 2018. Alfa Jango folks in the background with presenters from the Desai venture accelerator. Photo courtesy Ann Arbor Spark.
"Tech companies say they don’t get to go on the trek and network because [they’re] working the event," Queen says, "so the idea for the Hackathon was born."
Jenn Cornell Queen, VP Marketing Ann Arbor Spark
Below is a detailed schedule of the overnight Hackathon, complete with late-night yoga, and how you can get involved. Be sure to REGISTER FOR THE HACKATHON HERE, check out each event ahead of time to see if you need tickets or free registration, and when you're at Tech Trek or the Hackathon, say hi to Cronicle, who will be lurking Where's Waldo style all week.
Jenn Queen says Tech Trek has become a symbol of the spirit of the Ann Arbor tech community. “There’s really an enthusiasm around collaboration. If we cross-promote and bring this together under one umbrella, we all succeed.”