U-M Leaders Say Snyder Pick Good News for Startup Community, But Worry He’ll Be Held Up by Bureaucracy
Last week, Michigan voters elected political outsider Rick Snyder, whose resume more closely resembles that of a technology entrepreneur than a career politician, as the state’s next governor.
Before stepping into the political arena, Snyder served as president of computer giant Gateway, co-founded a venture capital firm called Avalon Investments, and was chairman of Ann Arbor SPARK, a business incubator.
As the self-proclaimed “tough nerd” prepares to take the reins of the state, leaders in the Ann Arbor startup community, which Snyder helped expand, say they’re excited to have someone in Lansing who understands their concerns. But some worry that despite his outsider perspective, he still might get bogged down in political bureaucracy.
Doug Neal, managing director for the University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship, which is housed in the College of Engineering, says although he doesn’t know what to expect from Snyder, he’s hopeful that the governor-elect will help foster an entrepreneurial spirit in the state.
“He seems very passionate about entrepreneurship and helping early-stage companies get going,” Neal says. “I think in general we’re optimistic that this will create a lot more focus and attention on the emerging opportunities.”
Neal says Snyder “really understands” that state funding opportunities for startup growth will have to be flexible, creative, and with limited restrictions. He added that he hopes Snyder will take the right steps to attract investors both in the state and around the country to help bring a variety of companies to the state, instead of just focusing on attracting one or two big ones.
Tom Kinnear, executive director of the Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies housed in U-M’s Ross School of Business, says he hopes Snyder will rid the state of complicated regulations and tax codes in order to incentivize businesses to move to or start in Michigan. He cited a bill currently pending in the state House and Senate—which he expects Snyder will support—that would give angel investors incentives to make risky investments in new companies as one way to foster the startup environment in the state.
“He’s not the mayor of Ann Arbor, so he’s going to take a pretty broad view of supporting all the centers of entrepreneurship in the state,” says Kinnear, who calls himself a friend of Snyder’s. “There’s a lot going on, and I think he will be very supportive of nurturing that.”
Indeed, U-M leaders recognize that Snyder will have to balance the concerns of academia, business, and state infrastructure. Ken Nisbet, the executive director of University of Michigan Tech Transfer, says he hopes Snyder takes a wide-ranging view of entrepreneurship in the state, adding that the governor-elect is “sensitive to how innovation in a university research setting can be helpful to the state.” Nisbet says the relationship between university research and economic innovation in Ann Arbor is a model that can be applied in other areas in Michigan.
Nisbet added that he hopes Snyder will be able to strike a balance between incentivizing investment and making sure there’s enough revenue for infrastructure in the state.
Thomas Zurbuchen, a U-M professor of space science and aerospace engineering and the founding director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, offered a different perspective, saying he hopes to see Snyder tackle a tax code that he believes isn’t friendly to startups. He added that he’s excited to see how the governor-elect will address one of the state’s most pressing problems—the “brain drain” of talent to other parts of the country.
“Incentivizing people to take on new talent with the various tools that the government has is going to be unbelievably important,” Zurbuchen says.
Zurbuchen, who has worked with Snyder in the past on projects for the Center for Entrepreneurship, called the governor-elect one of the top 20 people in the state in terms of the positive impact he has had on the Ann Arbor startup community. Zurbuchen added that he is so confident in Snyder’s capabilities that he supported the governor-elect throughout his campaign even though he doesn’t normally consider himself political.
“I know that [Snyder’s] unbelievably talented and thinks the right way about entrepreneurship and where it’s changed and where this state should head,” Zurbuchen says.
Despite his faith in Snyder’s ability, Zurbuchen says he’s concerned that political bureaucracy will get in the way of Snyder’s vision for the state. “The biggest worry I have is that even the best leaders in a messed-up political system can’t be successful,” Zurbuchen says. “I’m worried that even the very, very best such as Rick have only a limited capability because they have to swim in molasses.”
Neal echoed Zurbuchen’s sentiments, saying that capitalizing on the momentum of the current climate for startups is necessary to keep expanding the ecosystem in Ann Arbor and across the state. “We need to continue to fuel that fire so we don’t want to get bogged down in a lot of lengthy debates,” Neal said. “We need to move quickly and I think there is optimism… that he understands the value of time and speed.”
Kinnear said Snyder’s appointment of Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon to the position of state treasurer on Monday indicates his ability to reach across the aisle so that everyone is on the same page when it comes to creating incentives for businesses. Dillon was vying to be the Democratic candidate for governor before he was beat out by Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero in the primary in August.
Nisbet says he’s hopeful Snyder will be successful, but that he’s taking on a “pretty tough job.”
“The state has a set of financial conditions that are pretty unique,” Nisbet says. “I’m convinced knowing him personally that he’s the right guy.”