Breaking Down Barriers: A Detroit-Ann Arbor Dinner Conversation

Growing up in East Lansing, MI, I wasn’t aware of the “invisible forcefield on US-23,” as TechTown Detroit’s executive-in-residence Gerry Roston eloquently phrases it, that acts as a barrier between Detroit and Ann Arbor.

It seemed inconceivable to me that I, someone who grew up about 80 miles from Detroit, had visited the city more during my formative years than some of the folks I’ve met in recent times in Ann Arbor, a mere 39 miles from the Motor City.

Provincialism is nothing new in Michigan, but in the case of Ann Arbor and Detroit, particularly, it seemed strange that two neighboring cities—each trying to blaze a new trail in a recession-worn state no longer flush from the auto industry—wouldn’t be working together.

Each community is also nurturing a booming tech startup scene—Ann Arbor’s a bit more mature than Detroit’s—and can only benefit from cross-pollination and cooperation. To not make every effort to foster those relationships and bridge the walls would seem a disservice to the entire state. The Southeast portion of Michigan drives the state’s economy and churns out an enormous amount of talent. Imagine how much more powerful that engine could be if the startup ecosystems in each city operated as two halves of a united whole.

Things have gotten better in the past few years, but there is still plenty of work to be done. Because Xconomy has a foot in each community and covers the news of both, we wanted to help take the lead in a new effort to get local thought leaders together to see if we might tease out some solutions. That idea grew, and last week, with the lead support of the New Economy Initiative (NEI), we embarked on the endeavor.

What we hit upon was hosting a series of dinners and meetups to get the conversations flowing. We’re still not 100 percent sure how this will look, but over the next year, we want to get people together at least quarterly to see if we can’t find a way forward. Sometimes, the events might be sector-specific; we might host an intimate private dinner one quarter and a bigger, open meetup the next. We’re thrilled that a handful of our dinner guests are planning to write guest posts about the issue, and we look forward to rolling those out soon. Do you have ideas? E-mail me; you can find my address at the end of this post.

Last week, we also changed our name to Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor, in recognition of the two communities so crucial to the state’s efforts to innovate and diversify, as well as the regional collaboration we hope to help facilitate.

We held our first dinner in the Detroit-Ann Arbor series last Wednesday, and it sparked a lively conversation about how to bridge the gap between the startup communities of Detroit and Ann Arbor. We invited about 30 of our friends, supporters, and sources from both cities (Matt Bower from Varnum and Dug Song of Duo Security are pictured above).

David Egner from the New Economy Initiative was there, and so was Ken Nisbet, … Next Page »

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

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