Talking Ag Tech, Bridging the Ann Arbor-Detroit Gap at U-M Unconference

The premise of the Entrepreneurs Engage unconference held at the University of Michigan yesterday may sound a little hokey to the uninitiated: The audience suggests breakout-group topics, and then folks spend about 45 minutes in each discussion—or they don’t. “You vote with your feet,” said emcee (and Xconomist) Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations. “Go to a station, contribute, and if you lose interest, find another station. Whoever shows up at the station are the right people who are supposed to be there, and it ends when it ends.”

It turns out the unconference format is perfect for an engaged crowd with an entrepreneurial bent, like the one that was at the North Campus Research Complex yesterday. A nice array of Xconomists were spotted in the invitation-only crowd—including Dug Song, Chris Rizik, Jennifer Baird, and Ken Nisbet, whose U-M tech transfer office co-sponsored Entrepreneurs Engage with the Michigan Venture Capital Association—and Nisbet said he was thrilled with the turnout, which he estimated to be 20 percent higher than the first unconference held last June.

The first breakout session I chose to participate in revolved around the challenge of getting rural and agricultural entrepreneurs connected to, well, the people in the room and the various parts of the entrepreneurial ecosystem they represent. The topic was suggested by Diane Durance from Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest, who has been working to get aquaculture going in Michigan but has encountered significant roadblocks, mainly having to do with establishing a supply chain. “I think a lot of rural Michigan towns are in trouble,” she told the group. “The average age of farmers in Michigan is something like 65. When they go away, what does that mean?”

It’s a fact that Michigan is one of the most agriculturally diverse states in the nation and Michigan State University is a leader in developing agricultural biotech. “We’re really good at science and marketing, but not starting businesses,” Durance added.

There has to be a way to get kids interested in agricultural entrepreneurship, John Woell from Albion College agreed. He says his university is full of bright, enthusiastic “farm kids” who wouldn’t know the first step to take if they wanted to purse an ag tech startup. The group agreed that the locavore movement has helped spark some youthful interest in food tech and online supply chain management, such as the Ann Arbor startups Real Time Farms and LocalOrbit.

Joe Licavoli from Ann Arbor SPARK said, “In Ann Arbor, this stuff might not be sexy, and that’s why we need the state to take the lead. How do you push people who moved to urban areas for jobs back into rural areas? We have to change our mindset. We have to buy, and buy, and buy from local and state vendors and stop buying foreign goods.”

Luke Pinkerton, founder and CTO of Helix Steel, which is a U-M spinout company, … Next Page »

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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  • Dug Song

    Actually, Ann Arbor does have an annual 5k Twinkie run and a local Hash House Harriers chapter. But who’s counting? ;-)

    It’s true, there is a cultural and infrastructural gap separating the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor from the D. One day, I hope to see the hard line at 275 erased by something like

  • Sarah Schmid

    How could I forget Hash Bash?! That freshwater rail idea is awesome. Might make a good Xconomy story, in fact. Thanks for the tip, Dug!