Five Ways Michigan Can Become a High Tech and Life Sciences Powerhouse

5/13/10

Although I have lived in the Boston area for more than half my life, I grew up in the Detroit area and still have strong connections to my alma mater—the University of Michigan. I serve on the Board and Leadership Council of the Life Sciences Institute at U-M. In that capacity, I have kept in touch with the Michigan biotech culture. In my opinion, Michigan is poised to make significant contributions to the 21st century economy. Here are my responses to “What are five things that entrepreneurs and innovators in Michigan can do to reinvigorate their regional economy?”

A strong venture presence. An essential feature of a successful biotechnology hub is access to value-added venture capital. While financial resources exist in Michigan, the majority of new companies obtain capital through traditional financial institutions such as banks. But capital isn’t everything. The experience of seasoned venture capitalists who have domain expertise and understand how to build a successful biotech company are perhaps more important than funding.

A less provincial approach to innovation. Being located away from a biotech hub makes it more difficult to keep up with what is happening on the commercial side. Consequently, many startups tend to generate a lot of local interest (and funding!) without having the benefit of full due diligence. Local financial angels want to create a buzz and they sometimes overlook the global scene, resulting in small companies that reinvent the wheel.

A need to build a local culture. One of the realities of being located outside an existing technology hub is the lack of exposure to the entrepreneurial culture. Academics with useful technologies are not immersed in the entrepreneurial culture that exists in Boston, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle. Consequently, there are a limited number of role models and mentors, as well as the infrastructure to stimulate new enterprises.

A need to build on the strong engineering expertise and workforce. Michigan has a long history of innovation and engineering expertise and has a manufacturing workforce unlike any in the country. The state needs to invest in retraining the workforce from the focus on “Big Iron” to one that can compete in today’s high tech economy. This manufacturing know-how must be directed toward nimbleness-new ideas rapidly turn into new products and flexible manufacturing capabilities are key to rolling these new products out into the marketplace.

Use the intellectual capital of three major research universities. There are few places in the country with three major research universities (Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University) in such proximity. All three schools, along with Oakland University, have engineering and medical schools and the state boasts a strong medical research culture.

With these tremendous educational resources combined with the innovations coming out of these schools, by focusing on these five areas, the State of Michigan has all the right ingredients to be a technology powerhouse.

[Editor's note: To help launch Xconomy Detroit, we've queried our network of Xconomists and other innovation leaders around the country for their list of the most important things that entrepreneurs and innovators in Michigan can do to reinvigorate their regional economy.]

David R. Walt is the Robinson Professor of Chemistry at Tufts University, and a co-founder, director, and chairman of the scientific advisory board of San Diego-based Illumina. Follow @

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