Young entrepreneurs are pouring out of tech towns these days. If the towns are lucky, they retain many of them now that the Midwest and other places outside Silicon Valley are reviving and affordable spaces to grow a business. The University of Michigan, ranked #1-rated ecosystem for undergrad student entrepreneurs by Princeton Review, is leading the way in this shift in startup culture across the U.S.. That’s why successful serial entrepreneurs like Jim Price were brought on board, to mentor the next generation of founders. Price is Entrepreneurial Studies Faculty & Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, and he’s a big connector and mentor for young entrepreneurs starting out in Ann Arbor, with a background that spans coasts, tech and engineering, and teaching. He’s also a really fun guy we’ve watched help shift the entrepreneurial environment in Ann Arbor through generous mentorship, so we caught up with him in his office at the University of Michigan to ask him what led him to Ann Arbor and what trends he’s seeing these days in business and entrepreneurship.
Price started on the East Coast and in D.C., went to Stanford Graduate School of Business, and worked in Boston at a Fortune500 tech company. “Thirty years ago, I found my way to this little flyover state college town called Ann Arbor,” Price says, “to be VP of marketing and sales at a spinout from the University of Michigan mechanical engineering department. We grew it by 30x and took it public, which back then you could do with a micro cap stock.”
Price cashed in his stock and founded another startup, so you probably know where this story is going from here. He had been bit by the entrepreneurship bug. “In Boston I was responsible for relationships with small founders, and that drew me to this spinout,” Price says. “I raised a family [in Ann Arbor] and found this great place.” His second startup, Transom Technologies, transferred an extremely detailed model of the human body modeled at the University of Pennsylvania to help companies designing new airplanes, for example, fit realistic humans into their cockpits. The models accounted for differences in body proportions and how different sizes of people and body types move. “It was beautifully designed from a biomechanical standpoint,” Price says, “but the software sucked. The expertise, as so often happens this way, was in the domain and not in software design. We rewrote the software, built the company for 20 months, and sold it for 20 million.”
That was in the late 90s. From there, Price started angel investing and advising startups until 2003, when he was invited to join the faculty at the University of Michigan in what was then a new venture to teach entrepreneurship to second-year MBAs through the Zell Lurie Institute. “I thought I would do it once, for one class,” Price laughs. “Seventeen years and 2500 people later, I still hear from people multiple times per week saying, ‘I’m pregnant now and don’t think I could go back to X City or Company. Can we get on Skype and talk about my startup idea?’ That’s a real treasure for me. I’m still working as a coach, advisor, friend, and board member with people with whom I go back 15 years. It’s tech, no tech. Singapore, Southfield.”
“I thought I would do it once, for one class,” Price laughs. “Seventeen years and 2500 people later, I still hear from people multiple times per week.”
Jim Price is a born teacher, giving examples to illustrate his stories as he talks that range from hamster grooming to cookie dough. You can tell hearing Price speak that he loves what he does and he loves bringing up the next generation for success. “I started CIELO MedSolutions with Dave Morin in 2006 and sold it for 15 million in 2011,” he adds without missing a beat. “I’ve continued working with people while teaching.” Price’s office overlooks the huge atrium at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business where he teaches, and it’s obvious as he tells his story that he’s found his niche as a founder and a people person.
We ask Price what he’s seeing as far as business trends in startup culture, and he comes back around to the concept of companies that have domain expertise but not software design experience. “I’m seeing a lot changing to do with business model innovation,” he says. “Everyone rolls their eyes when they hear a company is ‘the AirBnB of this’ or ‘the Uber of that’ but it makes a lot of sense to help people understand a new business.”
Also, “the sharing economy is still very powerful,” he says, “building connections between buyers and producers. Some newish business models enable entrepreneurs who are domain experts rather than building tech companies, so they’re tech-enabled.” Insert epic hamster grooming service story here. “They tend to be more niche-oriented,” he says. “I see that as a good thing,” because that enables an entire larger group of entrepreneurs beyond the tech space.
“I’m seeing a lot changing to do with business model innovation,” Price says. “Everyone rolls their eyes when they hear a company is ‘the AirBnB of this’ or ‘the Uber of that’ but it makes a lot of sense to help people understand a new business.”
What’s happening in funding in the Michigan tech ecosystem? VC and angel funding have been on the rise in the Great Lakes region, but everyone has a different opinion on how much is enough in a healthy tech ecosystem. “We have a robust community in Southeast Michigan and the greater Great Lakes area now,” Price reflects. “Not so 30 years ago. People consistently struggled to find investment opportunities then so they went to the coasts. That has gotten better.”
What’s next for Jim Price, who has already done it all? He recently published a book called Launch Lens: 20 Questions Every Entrepreneur Should Ask and writes articles for Entrepreneur.com you can read here on why sometimes you wouldn’t want VC funding, or ways to evaluate or grow your business idea. You can find Jim Price at various entrepreneurship events and conferences around Ann Arbor and Detroit, and chances are if you’re in tech or startup culture in Ann Arbor, you already know someone who knows him. He’s a generous connector in the local entrepreneurship space. Don’t tell him we said this because he won’t let us forget it, but Zell is lucky to have him.