Students Quoted in Newspaper Article About Husky Innovate Trip

Lisa Casper (PHC), Ph.D. candidate Rourke Sylvain (biomedical engineering) and undergraduate student Jordan Craven (management information systems, computer science) were quoted in the Detroit Free Press about a recent Husky Innovate trip to southeast Michigan.

Students on the trip visited with leaders in Michigan’s burgeoning tech start-up scene at Michigan Central Station and TechTown in Detroit, and MI-HQ in Ann Arbor. 

Company town no more, Detroit’s startup scene gains momentum

From the Detroit Free Press, published December 21, 2023.

By Adrienne Roberts

Lisa Casper (PHC), Ph.D. candidate Rourke Sylvain (biomedical engineering) and undergraduate student Jordan Craven (management information systems, computer science) were quoted in the Detroit Free Press about a recent Husky Innovate trip to southeast Michigan. Students on the trip visited with leaders in Michigan’s burgeoning tech start-up scene at Michigan Central Station and TechTown in Detroit, and MI-HQ in Ann Arbor.

Jordan Craven loves Michigan. The 22-year-old Michigan Technological University student never wants to leave the state but at one point, she thought she might have to.

Craven, who is from Georgia but grew up in Ann Arbor, is developing a virtual 3D fitting room that would offer consumers the chance to try clothes on virtually before purchasing them.

“I originally thought I had to go out to the East or West Coast to have a technological startup because there’s no funding (in Michigan),” she said. “There’s no community, no options.”

A few recent visits to southeast Michigan to see its startup scene changed her mind.

“I was proven very wrong,” she said, after going to Michigan Tech Week in Ann Arbor in the fall and most recently, visiting several entrepreneurial hubs in November as part of a Michigan Tech trip to meet with entrepreneurs and see how startups operate.

For years, Michigan Tech took these students to Silicon Valley in California to meet with entrepreneurs and tour companies such as Google and Netflix. This year, for the first time, the students made the eight-and-a-half-hour drive down to metro Detroit from Houghton, visiting Newlab at Michigan Central and TechTown in Detroit and MI-HQ in Ann Arbor, among others.

Michigan Tech leaders decided to change up the trip because they wanted to show students that innovation is happening in Michigan, said Lisa Casper, director of Husky Innovate at Michigan Tech, a resource hub that offers programs and opportunities for students to develop as an innovator or an entrepreneur.

“You don’t need to go far,” Casper said.

Detroit as an emerging tech hub

Detroit ranked second in a PitchBook Data report on venture capital ecosystems worldwide that have shown the most growth. It ranked below Dubai but above cities like Berlin, Raleigh, North Carolina, Miami and Philadelphia.

Detroit startups raised $4 billion across 694 deals over the past five years, according to PitchBook, compared with $3.8 billion raised across 815 deals in that same timeframe in Dubai.

San Francisco is still the most developed venture capital ecosystem in the world by a considerable amount, the data firm said, raising $364.5 billion across 19,178 deals over the past five years, but Detroit is “emerging as a tech hub.”

Detroit being considered an emerging tech hub is a fairly recent development, Chris Rizik, founder and CEO of Renaissance Venture Capital, said. Renaissance Venture Capital is a fund of funds that invests in venture capital funds around the country, under the condition that they come to Michigan and look at startups.

“This has largely been a big company town for a long time,” Rizik said. “The cultural aspect of startups just wasn’t embraced by Detroit.”

The turning point, though, was the Great Recession, around the time Rizik was starting Renaissance Venture Capital. He said that because the recession devastated Michigan’s economy, interest in starting — and working at — startups increased.

Since then, those employees have gained experience — and in some cases have been rewarded financially — and have gone on to create their own companies, he said.

During this time, more startup incubators have opened, such as Newlab at Michigan Central, joining incubators like Ann Arbor SPARK and Bamboo, offering founders more options and resources to launch their companies.

At Newlab at Michigan Central in Detroit, which is home to more than 70 startups, about half of the startups are from Detroit and the other half are from around the world. Startups range from a company that makes electric camper vans called Grounded to JustAir, which provides air quality data to communities.

“In Detroit, it’s about connecting all of the great assets that we have,” Carolina Pluszczynski, chief operating officer of Michigan Central, said. “There are a lot (of assets) that exist already. How do we make sure that we create this network of assets” so that founders stay in Michigan?

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Investors from around the country taking notice

One important way to keep startups in Michigan is making sure there’s access to capital.

Rizik said when he started Renaissance, it was “a chore” to get venture funds in other parts of the country to come and look at Michigan.

“Now, it’s not a chore anymore,” he said. “In fact, they want to come.”

Now, as many as 300 venture funds will come to Detroit annually for Renaissance Venture Capital’s UnDemo Day at Ford Field, where they will meet with up to 100 local startups.

Michigan still does face challenges in maintaining and growing its startup community. Access to capital is still an issue for Michigan startups. Rizik said in some ways it’s easier to raise $5 million for more established companies in Michigan than $200,000 for the companies that are just getting started.

That’s something that’s on Rourke Sylvain’s radar.

Sylvain is pursuing his doctorate at Michigan Tech and is trying to spin out a technology from the lab, a wearable device that monitors the glucose, cortisol, lactate and the thyroid hormone, and commercialize it.

“I would like to see a more vibrant venture capitalist or private equity culture in Michigan,” he said. “There is great VC and private equity in Michigan. But it doesn’t (reach the) scale of Silicon Valley or Boston in regards to funding startups.”

Still, he fully intends to make it work in Michigan and has been encouraged to see some more federal government funding flowing into the state for scaling basic research.

One important quality of Michigan’s startup scene that Craven feels that the coasts can’t compete with is a supportive startup community.

“Every single person that you meet is just like, ‘Hi, I’m this person, how can I help you?’ instead of ‘I’m this person. I do this,'” she said.