Kinnear: Big Ideas Define U-M’s Current Entrepreneurial Climate
Kinnear is in a position to know. He helped found U-M’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, which hands out the awards, and has watched student entrepreneurs evolve through the years.
“The number of teams and the quality of ideas have jumped dramatically,” Kinnear says, noting the positive effect of $1.3 billion in annual research spending—a figure that leads the nation for public universities. “It’s not directly a result of that research funding, but the research funding stimulates interesting thinking across campus.”
The Michigan Business Challenge is a four-month business plan competition that has been compared to the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament for the way competitors move through the rounds. This year, a record 72 teams competed to win $112,000. The winners were announced last Friday, along with winners of the Dare to Dream and Venture Shaping grants.
Calling the Michigan Business Challenge the antithesis of “Shark Tank,” Kinnear says the technology and scope involved with the competing startups tended to be pretty grand in scale. “These are really substantial companies that require serious funding and serious management teams,” he says. “That’s what I’m excited about.”
The big winner, as chosen by outside VCs and entrepreneurs, was a company called Focus, which won the $20,000 award for best business. Focus, a fitness tech startup, makes a wristband that automatically identifies and records repetitions, sets, rest periods, and weights. Its “virtual trainer” app then provides professional recommendations and workouts based on individual goals, such as tone, strength, or even the improvement of a specific position in a specific sport.
Kinnear praised the company for identifying a very specific market and targeting the “pain” felt in that market.
The $10,000 runner-up award—and a separate $5,000 award for having the best engineering team—went to Exo Dynamics. The medical device startup is making electromechanical braces for surgeons and doctors who must stand or bend for significant time periods while working.
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