Destination Innovation: Entrepreneurs Are Key

Destination Innovation: Entrepreneurs Are Key

April 29, 2010/WWJ.COM


Troy (WWJ)  -- What will it take for Michigan to get its economic groove back? At WWJ's "Destination: Innovation" Business Breakfast in Troy, business and university leaders agreed that entrepreneurialism is the key.


During Thursday's event, WWJ had a chance to hear from some of the top minds in Michigan about how we can bring new business, new technology and jobs to our state.


Judy Johncox helps turn ideas into action at Wayne state University's Tech Town. She said the key to being an entrepreneur is to surround yourself with other idea people.


"It's much harder to build a company at home, in your basement, than it is to have a small space inside an entrepreneurial community -- where you're brining insight from other enterpreneurs," Johncox told WWJ's Ron Dewey.


"You're learning what you don't know from experiences of other enterpreneurs," she said.


Johncox says if you believe in your idea and are willing to put in the time and the work to make it grow, you can make your own trail to the next economy.


Jeff Mason is Executive Director of Michigan’s University Research Corridor, which is a collaboration between the state's three largest universities. "We've lost some of that 'mojo', if you will, in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship," Mason said.


"And Destination Innovation is an opportunity to bring some thought leaders together to talk about innovation, and what is is, and why it's important, and why it can really help in terms of new trajectory for Michigan's economy," he said.


In order for Michigan to regain its entrpenuerial spirit, University of Michigan Business Professor Jeff DeGraff said we need to get back in touch with our "inner Henry Ford."


"[We had] a hundred years of tinkerers and inventors and builders, and 'can do', and a sense of destiny -- I think that one of the things that happend in the 80's, in the downturn, is things got very conservative here," DeGraff said.


DeGraff says he sees these can-do people coming out of his classrooms. The roblem is, they take their amazing ideas out of Michigan. And DeGraff says that has to change.


Prior to the event, WWJ's Roberta Jasina spoke DeGraff about the economy, innovation, jobs and Michigan's future.


Jasina spoke also with Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, who says in order to reach our goals, Michigan needs to "move away from an economy of entitlement and move toward an economy of entrepreneurship."


Sheridan says, in his business, he loves to see creative conflict arise in the conference room, which, he says, fuels innovative ideas.


Soji Adelaja, Director of Michigan State University's Land Policy Institute spoke with  Ron Dewey about the change in culture necessary in order to fix Michigan's economy.


During the event, Sheridan decried Michigan's 'entitlement economy,' and said the state has to be more accepting of failure when entrepreneurs try to establish new businesses


"Failure sounds like you're finished," he said. "Think of it more as making mistakes, and what we really need to do is make mistakes faster to move the economy faster."


Johncox said the number of entrepreneurs involved in Wayne State's TechTown business, research and technology park has increased from 70 to 300 over the past year, testament to both increased interest in entrepreneurship and the fact that some people were involuntarily made into entrepreneurs through layoff.


DeGraff complained that Michigan has half the venture capital of Minnesota despite having twice its population, and has educational attainment well below the national average.


He likened Michigan's economic situation to alcoholism, and said that like a beginning 12-stepper, Michigan has to hit bottom to face reality. And Adelaja said this is pretty much the bottom.


However, DeGraff said he was optimistic about General Electric bringing its manufacturing technology center to Van Buren Township, and predicted more jobs in high-growth industries like cleantech and security. And he said the drive to lower business taxes doesn't mean business success -- because the nation's three highest-taxed states, California, New York and Massachusetts, control most of its venture capital. He also complained that more than half of state tax breaks go to auto-related firm, which certainly doesn't represent diversification.


Adelaja also decried the fractured, competitive nature of local units of government in Michigan, and said more regional thinking is needed.


A second panel of entrepreneurs and those who assist them talked about how they have succeeded. Jason Bornhorst, a 23-year-old December 2009 computer engineering graduate of the University of Michigan who's already a serial entrepreneur, said he's doing everything he can to stay in the state, but there are more opportunities elsewhere. Dean Massab, CEO of Roush Life Sciences, talked about how the Livonia auto supplier is diversifying into medical devices.


Charles A. Hasemann, executive director of MSU Connect, talked about MSU's new effort to directly engage the private sector and assist new business formation. And Rangaramanujam Kannan of Wayne State's chemical engineering department talked about his startup company in nanomaterials, which has the chance to improve everything from coatings to plastic wraps.


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