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.
As of 2019, Detroit now has 4 unicorns–Duo, Stockx, Rivian, and OneStream–tech companies valued at more than 1 billion dollars. Detroit is home to a growing number of startups that are slowly revolutionizing the city’s economy and the economy of the Midwest, which is attracting back talent from the coasts due to balanced work-life culture, affordable cost of living, and growing tech-related industries. It’s still a work in progress, but Michigan appears to have finally stemmed the tide of talent leaving for jobs elsewhere.
Rebecca Cunningham, the University of Michigan Interim VP for Research with Tech Transfer and Kelly Sexton, Associate VP for Research at Technology Transfer and Innovation Partnerships at U of M TechTransfer, held a panel this week at Celebrate Invention on a milestone year for the University of Michigan developing inventions, research, and startups from work done by faculty and researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. TechTransfer is the licensing office that helps researchers and faculty at the University of Michigan who develop inventions and new business ideas spin off intellectual property with proper licensing from the University of Michigan. This year, according to Cunningham, the University of Michigan has developed 502 new inventions, 198 patents, 232 licenses and options with industry, and founded a record 22 new startups.
It’s a well-worn Silicon Valley fairytale that some of the world’s biggest and best tech companies started in garages. In the Midwest tech ecosystem, which is growing quickly in towns like Ann Arbor, there is still a bit of this bootstrapping in action. Case in point, home healthcare tech company Shoshana, which was founded almost 20 years ago in a shed on a farm north of Ann Arbor near the Washtenaw Food Hub. The team is now a dozen strong and fill a space that is mid-renovation, so there are multiple monitors and young people milling around a building that still doesn’t have walls. A young developer knits in front of a lit screen in the back room at a standing desk next to a colleague. An old wood stove still sits in the middle of the main room, even though the building now has HVAC and heat. “There is a fallow field behind this yard,” Shoshana President Tom Voiles explains, pointing past a yurt and barn through some trees. “Sometimes we do team circles there. It’s very peaceful.”
When we were kids, it was headline news that the human genome had finally been sequenced, a remarkable feat of science that cost $2.7 billion and took 15 years to complete. Today, according to Matthew Hymes of Arbor Biosciences, it’s possible to replicate the same work for under $1,000, which has allowed an entire field of genomic sequencing to emerge, with applications from crop disease resistance studies to research on ancient DNA from archeological digs, to medical research. Arbor Biosciences is one of those companies, whose work in genomic sequencing can be applied to a host of industries.
Health monitor biosensors are a topic in tech right now, but most of them are physical sensors, says Girish Kulkarni, founder of Arborsense. What if instead of using optics or sensors that measure blood pressure and flow through the skin, you could measure chemicals? We’ve been hearing for years now that graphene was supposed to take over the world, and maybe that world is finally arriving. Arborsense uses graphene electronic transdermal nano-sensors to test for chemicals and biomolecules through biomonitors. What does that mean? Here’s one example: Arborsense is partnering in clinical trials with Ann Arbor-based clinical psychiatrist Mark Ilgen at the Med School to use their graphene sensors to monitor drug addict patient alcohol blood levels through what molecules are excreted through the skin. That’s right. Instead of a breathalyzer one-time analysis of blood alcohol levels or other periodic tests for drug use, these graphene nano-sensors continuously monitor blood alcohol levels to track patient sobriety, health, and more.
We often hear about the tech startups of Ann Arbor, which have experienced quite a bit of long-anticipated growth since recent successes of a number of local infosec and software development firms, but there’s a side to Ann Arbor tech that not many people see: the life sciences. Case in point, fifty companies give or take now reside in the Mi-HQ startup campus west of Ann Arbor, where founder Mark Smith hosts all kinds of life science and tech-enabled startups. A third building is in the process of opening now, keeping Smith busy dealing with HVAC contractors and new companies moving into custom renovated spaces. The original buildings 1 & 2, which sit next to the 2:24 community center and church on Wagner Road, are comprised of 140,000 square feet of specialized lab and office spaces, always expanding and shifting. Smith takes us down the hallways, many blocked off as private labs and office suites for companies doing everything from business development to molecular diagnostics and genetics research.
Mike McLeod helped start Eli Review as a project at Michigan State, to help connect professors and students online. The project took off as an online learning platform over the past 5 years, and now McLeod isn’t so much aiming to always disrupt with new products. “I’m about evangelizing for incremental improvement,” he says. “Maintenance…
… Innovation in Action uses the same work space as TechArb for students to come brainstorm ideas for new ventures. Students and mentors first meet to discuss ideas, then browse presentations on the walls featuring different components of the business ideas and the challenges they are attempting to solve. People can place a dot sticker near any idea that sparks their interest, and leave Post-Its with questions the idea raises for them. This was the process going on during the IIA meeting. Entrepreneurs can see how their idea strikes people, where the interest is clustered, and have a chance to address concerns or questions as their business idea progresses. As we go around the room at the Innovation in Action meeting, Gourley introduces people involved in one or both programs with Innovation or TechArb.