Kinnear: Big Ideas Define U-M’s Current Entrepreneurial Climate

2/28/13Follow @XconomyDET

After 30 years, what sets apart winners of the University of Michigan’s annual Michigan Business Challenge competition? “Big ideas,” says Tom Kinnear.

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.

Go Tickets, a digital platform school that athletic departments can use to control secondary ticket markets, won $5,000 for having the best undergraduate team and presentation. CentriCycle, which makes pedal-powered centrifuges for medical use in remote, off-the-grid areas, won a $7,500 award for sustainability. Other winners were PhasiQ, a biotech startup that makes biomarker tests ($2,000); Password Patterns, which uses innovative designs to help people remember passwords ($2,500); and Torch Hybrid, a software service for the manufacturers of marine hybrid-electric powertrains ($4,500).

Kinnear says the fact that a startup like Universal Vaccine—which has a novel technology platform that produces vaccine candidates against mutable viruses like HIV, Hepatitis C, and Influenza—didn’t make it to the final round speaks to the quality of the contestants and the range of ideas in the competition. “Some years, you go, `Well, wait a minute, that’s not all that exciting,’” he notes. “That was not the case this year.”

Kinnear, who is approaching his 70th birthday, plans to retire in June. He’s seen the business school change from a place, a generation ago, where students primarily came with the goal of working for a big firm to one where more and more students want to learn how to be an entrepreneur. Though he cautions that there’s no data to back up that notion, he’s observed a generational dynamic at play that increasingly values entrepreneurship.

“A significant group in the business school today looks at the big companies and wonders, where are the future jobs?” he says. “The big companies aren’t hiring. The future is now based on an ability to create something for yourself, and that’s been exacerbated by the recession.”

Give millennials a computer, he says, and they won’t turn to the manual to learn how to use it. Instead, they’ll play around with it until they figure it out. “Here, the faculty is the manual, but then we let them play,” he adds. “That’s why we have three [student-run] investment funds. Every class probably has a field component now, and that’s a dramatic change.”

Kinnear says he’s proud of U-M’s hands-on approach to teaching the art of entrepreneurship, and has seen the university’s graduate program rise from semi-obscurity to being ranked second in the nation. He thinks the sharp increase in collaboration across U-M’s schools and departments has also been key to the program’s success.

“The University of Michigan was a vast wasteland of entrepreneurship 15 years ago,” he adds. “People like David Brophy were carrying the water in a very lonely environment. Now, the diversity of students we see involved in entrepreneurship stretches way beyond the business school. That’s part of why it’s such an exciting environment here, and such a big change.”

As Kinnear searches for a replacement—though he says he’ll remain actively involved in Ann Arbor’s entrepreneurial scene—he believes a solid entrepreneurial core is in place at the university.

“I’d rather leave when things are in really good shape,” he says. “It’s just time.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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  • ALF

    If we could make an environmental theme for a think tank initiative we could find some real practical solutions, and evaluate from suggestions etc,,, the preparedness of participants to accept and incorporate new eco-concepts.