The world requires innovation—now more than ever. Science. Technology. Engineering. Math. Along the wild shores of Lake Superior, researchers, students, and entrepreneurs create the future. So says the website for MTEC SmartZone, a tech incubator that is located on the shores of Lake Superior in northern Michigan. You can’t get much farther north in the United States toward fresh air and rugged wilderness at the gateway to the Keewenaw Peninsula that juts out into cold and stunningly beautiful Lake Superior, and you can’t get much better aligned with Michigan tech. That’s because MTEC operates out of Michigan Technological University in Houghton. One of the biggest challenges currently facing Michigan’s new growth in tech-related industries is that there is so little media coverage or visiblity for all the smaller players that make up a very large movement of startups that are revitalizing Michigan’s economy. Who knew there were tech incubators all over the state of Michigan? Hardly anyone, including us until recently.
Starting your own business is the dream of many. What could be more exciting than owning and running your own business, setting your own schedule, and making tons of money?
In mid-July, financial marketplace Credible ranked Michigan as #2 state in the nation for post-pandemic economic recovery, based on the economic recovery initiatives pushed by Governor Whitmer. These included the base for the Economic Jumpstart Plan, which involves critical support for small businesses, startups, and main street businesses who were often left out of business loans during the pandemic.
Three Michigan startups from mid-Michigan have just been named to a Michigan list of 25 top startups to watch, the Renaissance VC Fund list. Ann Arbor-Detroit and Traverse City aren’t the only Michigan cities creating welcoming communities for new tech startups. According to incubator Lansing LEAP, which supports new ventures in the Mid-Michigan region, “The Lansing area grew by 5% in 25 critical high-tech occupations from 2015-2020 and projects an additional 4% growth from 2020-2025, outpacing the national average.” Lansing is not known as one of the bigger emerging tech hubs in the Midwest, but its network of advanced manufacturing, seat of state government, and growing funding make it a critical and growing part of the Midwest’s long-standing effort to recover and diversify the economy and provide new businesses with a healthier climate to operate with a much lower operating cost than on the coasts.
Brandon Marken is co-founder and CEO of Lean Rocket Lab, a tech incubator in Jackson, Michigan, that focuses on helping new founders with an idea for a manufacturing business or product go from 0 to 60. Lean Rocket Lab has a generous open-door policy to help new entrepreneurs with a business idea walk in with a business idea, whether it’s well-formed or early stage, and be given some guidance and mentorship and connection with professionals who can help them build into a successful business. Now Lean Rocket Lab is launching a new accelerator program in the advanced manufacturing space, to bring together more new businesses on the tech side of manufacturing with Jackson Michigan’s global hub of hundreds of manufacturing companies to help new manufactured products get out into the world.
Incubator programs are the newest way to get a business off the ground. They offer mentorship, free rent on office space, guidance through customer discovery or clinical trials and securing early funding. Who wouldn’t want that kind of help through fragile early stages of building a company? But incubators don’t all work the same. We’ve been pitched lately with everything from revenue sharing to rapid cycle business development processes and realized that there is a broadening landscape out there of what an incubator or accelerator really is.
A continuing problem in an emerging tech and startup hub like southeast Michigan is lagging funding, but many venture capital firms spread resources farther than regional focus and invest in ventures when they’re already producing revenue. That’s not when most ventures need the most help. Invest Detroit, or ID Ventures, is a venture capital team that provides investment to startup companies in the Detroit and greater Michigan region in the seed stage. We hear a lot at Cronicle Press that VCs often don’t like to restrict their investments too regionally, which further dilutes access to limited capital in the Great Lakes area, but ID Ventures focuses on Detroit and is the company behind the launch of successful Detroit startups Bloomscape, and northern Michigan’s Orbion, and Airspace Link.
Denise Graves is the University Relations Director for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. She coordinates funding for a number of startup funds around the state, and she works closely with universities to get inventions out into industry. We’ve known the MEDC was supporting revitalizing the Michigan economy for years, but recently we ran into Graves at a university entrepreneurial event and realized we only ever get a partial picture of how startups can connect with the MEDC for business support services, and how all of this really works. We wanted to know more, and thought you might as well. Graves and her colleague, Vice President of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the MEDC Fred Molnar, explained to Cronicle the process they go through to help support new ventures in Michigan.
What is going on in Ann Arbor and Detroit? Everyone from Fortune Magazine to Forbes have recently rated the nextdoor Michigan cities as tech or startub hubs to watch. In 2019, VentureBeat listed Ann Arbor as the #1 place for female founders to raise a round. Last year, USAToday listed Ann Arbor as a top innovative city. Bloomberg recently listed Ann Arbor as a top #3 tech hub for their brainpower index, given Ann Arbor is the best educated city in the United States. Detroit was not to be left out, listed in 2019 as the next potential Silicon Valley by Fortune. Forbes has several times claimed Detroit was a startup hub to watch. And on and on.
There are now more than 20 SmartZones across the state of Michigan, which means incubators in dozens of locations to support local startups. Right in the center of Michigan, Lansing’s LEAP program rungs the PROTO Accelerator, supporting local startups in tech-related industries. Besides geographical location, what distinguishes one startup incubator or tech accelerator program from another is often the prevailing industry in that city that supports new ventures. In the case of Lansing, that industry is insurance tech.