If Michigan Were a Stock, I’d Buy a Bunch of Options

4/6/11Follow @bbuderi

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was being attempted. First and foremost (and here I credit our chief correspondent Wade Roush, a native Michigander who was the first to raise the idea with me), we saw an effort to diversify the state’s economic base and to thereby make the economy less dependent on the auto sector. There were already a lot of efforts underway on this front. The state’s life sciences sector, especially around Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, featured some world-class research and companies. So did a growing medical device cluster. Our Boston site had already written several stories about Michigan’s efforts in cleantech, through our coverage of New England companies like A123Systems opening a lithium ion battery manufacturing plant in Livonia, MI, or biofuels startup Mascoma planning a facility in Kinross, MI. And that didn’t count the home-grown efforts in a slew of cleantech projects, from wind to biofuels to batteries for electric vehicles. Cleantech also was benefitting from ongoing strong work in nanotechnology: after all, it was back in 2001 that Michigan’s new governor, Rick Snyder, launched Small Times magazine in Ann Arbor to cover nanotech.

Those things were relatively easy to spot from afar. Then, as we investigated further, we learned about a growing Internet gaming community, and what was quite possibly the world’s largest computer design community. The designers were hired primarily around the auto industry, but there was work underway to apply their expertise to an array of other arenas, including the design of wind turbine blades and robotics systems. And speaking of robotics: Massachusetts-based iRobot was just opening a Michigan office to tap the state’s robotics expertise for defense work, while other efforts were underway to build a new cluster of auto robotics firms. Then we learned about a series of new initiatives and programs to help start, incubate, mentor, and fund companies. TechTown in Detroit and Ann Arbor Spark had the highest profiles, but we saw plenty of other examples, including a new Detroit chapter of Mobile Monday: the group is a mainstay here in Boston that draws several hundred people to its monthly meetings but was only in the planning stages in Michigan.

And behind such examples sat an even bigger story–that is of the innovation efforts inside the big automakers. How were they planning for the future and trying to get back on track, or, hopefully, ahead of the curve?

So it was all these stories and a lot more—set inside the bigger, all-encompassing story of Michigan’s attempts at long-term economic revival—that we wanted to be on the ground in Michigan to cover. And because success or failure in this broad-based effort to promote entrepreneurship and innovation holds national and event global import, we wanted to tell these stories not just for a local audience, but for our growing global audience as well.

In early January, 2010 the Kauffman Foundation agreed to help support the launch of Xconomy Detroit. We made trips to get to know the innovation community, hired a correspondent, formed a network of about 20 top advisors (called Xconomists), and launched last April 20. In early December, we held our first event—a networking evening to thank all those who have helped us get started in Michigan. And our first public event, which I will be coming out for, is coming up at TechTown on April 14. It is called Michigan 2031, and we have assembled an all-star cast from a variety of sectors to brainstorm about what Michigan’s innovation scene will look like in 20 years—and how/where it can attain positions of national and world leadership in key sectors.

We see bringing people together across various disciplines and fields of interest as another way to catalyze innovation. Our hope is to add a different type of spark to this catalysis, both through our role as an independent media company, and by cross-fertilizing our Michigan events and coverage with perspective from around the country. We plan to invite outside speakers to Michigan, and Michigan entrepreneurs and innovators to events in our other cities, which currently include Boston, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.

A brief word on the bigger picture. Michigan’s story of innovation transformation is not just important in terms of its direct contribution to economic recovery and competitiveness, say, in the auto industry. There is a bigger, longer-term issue at play here–and that involves how Michigan’s efforts might lead to whole new centers of excellence in key areas. To paraphrase Lou Galambos, a professor of Economic, Business, and Political History at Johns Hopkins University, it is the establishment and nourishment of competing centers of excellence that give the United States its long-term edge. A growing number of countries now rival the U.S. in their level of expertise in given scientific or technological areas, and they are getting increasingly better at commercializing that expertise. No other country can yet rival the U.S. in the multiplicity of those efforts, however. Through efforts now underway, and more to come, Detroit and Michigan have the potential to add several new clusters to the American competitiveness arsenal.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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