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University of Michigan to Help Bring Tech Talent, Startups to Detroit

The university is working with the Detroit Regional Chamber on Innovate Michigan, an initiative to keep skilled graduates from Michigan universities in state and to secure financing for companies founded by researchers.

Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah stands with University of Michigan President Santa Ono
Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah, left, and University of Michigan President Santa Ono said Thursday on Mackinac Island UM and the chamber are creating an Ann Arbor-to-Detroit "innovation corridor" to help draw and keep tech workers and startups in Michigan.
Melissa Nann Burke/TNS
(TNS) — The University of Michigan and the Detroit Regional Chamber are teaming up to establish a new Ann Arbor-to-Detroit "innovation corridor" to help draw and keep entrepreneurs, tech professionals and start-ups in Michigan — an initiative that UM President Santa Ono promised to be an "economic spark plug for the whole state."

The idea, known as Innovate Michigan, was unveiled Thursday at the Mackinac Policy Conference. It's aimed at retaining skilled talent from Michigan universities in state and securing financing for start-ups or other companies founded by researchers or university employees who are looking to commercialize their research or intellectual property.

"Our big vision is to set this table for a collaborative initiative that will encompass multiple entities across higher ed, the private sector, the civic sector, philanthropy to move this forward," said Sandy Baruah, CEO and president of the chamber.

The university is investing $1 billion into bolstering innovation and economic development efforts over several years, Ono said, including initiatives already in the works such as the UM Center for Innovation in Detroit for which $250 million in new programming investments are planned in new certificate and degree programs "that will really contribute to talent in the state."

Ono also highlighted the coalition UM has with Washtenaw Community College, General Motors Co. and others that are working to create a Semiconductor Center for Excellence in Michigan.

As part of this investment, Ono said UM is in the advanced stages of planning for a new innovation district on the north campus at the University of Michigan that will involve multiple research buildings, plus a campus hotel and conference center to provide space to host major national conferences and other large events.

"That will be the hub of that innovation district at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor campus, where we will assemble a growing number of world class researchers and scientists together with industry leaders in the state, serial entrepreneurs and also attracting venture capital from around the world to invest in these innovations coming out of this new research corridor and the state of Michigan as a place to convene all of these individuals," Ono said.

"It will be a place that'll be right next to our scientists and our faculty and staff to really act as an economic sparkplug for the state of Michigan."

Organizers of Innovate Michigan want to attract and keep medium and large businesses in Michigan and draw to Michigan degree holders or high-tech entrepreneurs from across the country and globe, they said.

"A key element of this work will be to connect entrepreneurs with high-flying young companies, with the established companies already in Michigan, so there is more of a reason for those entrepreneurial those innovative companies to stay in Michigan because they will have better clients in Michigan and we will develop spin off collaborations and innovation by young companies working with our established companies," Baruah said.

Ono and Baruah said they are forming a preliminary convening committee that will develop a strategy, benchmarking metrics, goals and timeline, as well as review best practices from other successful “innovation corridors.”

"Our intent is simply to create and set the table for a broad coalition to convene, to collaborate and, most importantly, take tangible and measurable action in the cause of building a robust innovation corridor stretching across Southeast Michigan, encompassing certainly not just Detroit and Ann Arbor but other areas across the region," Baruah said.

The primary corridor in this region has been north-south, starting in downtown Detroit and going north up Woodward Avenue to Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Pontiac and beyond.

But the new corridor would run east-west from downtown Detroit from Michigan Central Station and encompassing the new University of Michigan Innovation Center in Detroit, the joint Michigan State University-Henry Ford Health Distance Innovation Center on Grand Boulevard, the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn and onto the UM campus in Ann Arbor, the other innovation "nodes" that the chamber and its partners have developed, Baruah said.

Both leaders indicated they see the corridor as a way of better competing with peer states and regions to attract funding and high-tech entrepreneurs. A stated goal is to also work on initiatives to develop "attractive" communities that will attract young professionals.

Ono said UM will likely eclipse $1 billion in investments in Innovate Michigan-related initiatives in the long term. He also expects that the university "supercharging" its national laboratory relationships will also draw talent and entrepreneurs to the state.

"UM received a $15 million investment from the Los Alamos National Lab that will bring computing technologies to the state of Michigan at a level that we do not enjoy currently that is essential for everything that we want to achieve as a state," Ono said.

"That's not just for the University of Michigan. That's for everyone in the state of Michigan and all the other educational institutions, as well as the companies that rely upon high performance computing for their competitive advantage."

Ono has experience working on a similar innovation corridor that launched in 2016 between Washington state and British Columbia when Ono was president at the University of British Columbia. In its first year, the collaboration launched a feasibility study for a new ultra-high-speed rail line from Portland, Oregon, to B.C.

"We clearly have a focus on economic development. This president, when he says we're the University for Michigan, not the University of Michigan, he really means that," said Sarah Hubbard, chair of the UM Board of Regents.

"We have really had a focus on that, as well as how important it is for the university being integrated into the economic development function of the state ― tied to what our regional partners are doing, what our state partners are doing and helping retain our students for jobs in the state."

Ideally, the corridor will aim to help keep UM's "spin off" research in Michigan, which would help develop Michigan into a stronger economic development ecosystem for other elements like venture capital, entrepreneurship or even mature companies, Hubbard said.

"Stay here in Michigan and really be part of that cycle with University of Michigan," she said.

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