The Story Behind Rick Snyder: Seasoned Tech Entrepreneur Wins Michigan GOP Primary

It’s near the beginning of 2001 and I walk into the Ann Arbor, MI, offices of Ardesta for the first time. I am introduced to Rick Snyder, CEO of the business accelerator. After we exchange our greetings and I’m shown my new desk, a colleague tells me that Snyder will run for governor of Michigan one day. Launching Ardesta is part of Snyder’s long-range plan to establish himself as a successful entrepreneur in Michigan and use it as a platform for his political ambitions, my colleague says.

And Snyder has done exactly that. Nine years after I came to work for him (more on that below), Snyder has surprised the political establishment in Michigan and has won the state’s GOP primary. He will face Democrat Virg Bernero, mayor of Lansing, MI, in November for the governor’s office.

I am looking forward to a campaign in which the language of entrepreneurship is spoken by a candidate who actually knows what he’s talking about.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, here’s a little more background on Snyder, and on my connection with him.

Snyder was born in Battle Creek, MI, and attended the University of Michigan in the late ’70s and early ’80s, where he shined as a wunderkind, earning a bachelor’s, MBA, and law degree all before he turned 23. He rose through the ranks at the Detroit and Chicago offices of the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers), where he was put in charge of mergers and acquisitions. Between ’91 and ’97, he helped run Gateway computer and guided the PC firm from a private $600 million business to a $6 billion-plus publicly traded company.

Then he returned to Michigan to begin the next phase of his career. In 1997, he launched Avalon Investments in Ann Arbor, and then a couple of years later he founded Ardesta, whose mission was to bring cutting-edge nanotechnology and MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) research to market. Snyder coined a new term, “Small Tech,” to describe the technologies he was investing in.

One of the most successful of Ardesta’s investments was medical device maker HandyLab, which was acquired for $300 million last year by New Jersey-based medical devices manufacturer Becton, Dickinson and Company.

To help spread the word about Small Tech, he created and funded a magazine and website called Small Times. That’s where I stepped into the picture. Between 2001 and 2004, I was news editor for Small Times, so Snyder was indirectly my boss for a few years. I’ve had little contact with him since 2004 other than interviewing him for various news stories.

My most recent interview with Snyder happened last summer, right at the beginning of his campaign, when he told me his philosophy of attracting C-level talent to Michigan, to take small startups and create viable businesses that will, in turn, create new jobs. He’s also in favor of repealing a business tax here in Michigan that is not very popular with entrepreneurs.

Chris Rizik, a Detroit Xconomist and the CEO of Renaissance Venture Capital Fund, which has offices in Ann Arbor and Detroit, was Snyder’s second-in-command for years at Ardesta. Rizik was celebrating with Snyder at his victory party last night. I asked him to tell me what a Gov. Snyder would mean for the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Michigan.

“We know that the vast majority of new jobs come from entrepreneurial companies rather than large corporations,” Rizik wrote to me in the wee hours of this morning. “But many of the actions out of Lansing over the past few years, including the Michigan Business Tax, show that Michigan is not sensitive to what drives successful entrepreneurship.

“Having a governor who has been an entrepreneur and who has spent most of his career in entrepreneurship would be an important change, by providing us with a leader who led the creation of a legal and economic development framework that will drive entrepreneurship forward,” Rizik wrote.

Indeed, Snyder lives and breathes the entrepreneurial culture, and is well-established as a local job creator and economic development leader. He speaks the same language as most of Xconomy’s readers. I don’t agree with him on everything. He talks about making government run more like a business, and I would argue that business and government have two separate purposes, and that one should not necessarily run like the other.

But while these are philosophical issues that can be debated, there is no denying that Snyder will run a campaign that is based on his extensive experience as a technology entrepreneur. That, alone, will make this campaign something that Xconomy readers will want to pay close attention to.

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