Start-ups sprouting in Michigan

Posted on January 30, 2012

“Something is happening here,” Bob Dylan wrote during the tumultuous changes of the 1960s, “but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

That lyric from the 1965 song “Ballad of a Thin Man” runs through my head as I look at three events on the calendar in Michigan this week:

• On Monday it’s the grand reopening of the historic Madison Building in Detroit, bought and renovated last year by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and now home to Skidmore Studio and a cluster of technology start-ups anchored by Detroit Venture Partners.

• On Tuesday in Grand Rapids, Rick DeVos, instigator of the ArtPrize competition and grandson of Amway founder Rich DeVos, hosts the next in his series of monthly 5X5 Nights — where five would-be entrepreneurs get five minutes each to present ideas and compete for $5,000 in start-up cash.

• And Wednesday in Ann Arbor, Scott Case, the founding chief technology officer of and now CEO of the Startup America Partnership, will be on hand for the launch of Startup Michigan, a high-powered effort to accelerate the creation and success rate of high-growth companies in the state.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but can Michigan really be morphing from its long economic dependence on giant companies and big labor unions into a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity?

Believe it, says Paul Glomski, 36, a Flint native who left Michigan and returned in 2005 after earning an engineering degree and an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I’m really shocked at what I’m seeing around me here,” says Glomski, CEO and co-founder of Detroit Labs, a mobile applications developer with 11 employees, one of eight outfits in the Madison building. Others include mobile news reader FLUD and online home décor and design company Doodle Home.

“We’re seeing 20-something and 30-something entrepreneurs from Philly and San Francisco touring this space and saying wow, they can’t believe what’s going on,” adds Glomski, whose firm is currently basking in the success of its Chevy Game Time app developed as part of General Motors’ Super Bowl promotional effort.

Rick DeVos is feeling a similar vibe in Grand Rapids. “We’re getting over 200 people at these monthly 5X5 events,” he says. “The real value is getting these young people up on stage, presenting ideas and networking.” DeVos is also backing Momentum, a 12-week boot camp for entrepreneurs.

Paula Sorrell, managing director, entrepreneurial services for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., sees the same groundswell around the state. She remembers going to Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurs (ACE) meetings in Ann Arbor a decade ago when there were 10 or 12 company tables and 50 to 80 people attending. At the ACE meeting this week, in conjunction with the Startup Michigan kickoff, “they’re expecting 1,000 people,” she says.

Obviously, Michigan is no Silicon Valley yet and we have a long way to go to reach the critical mass of talent, capital and collaboration that breeds such a hub. “I still spend time introducing different groups around Michigan to one another,” Sorrell says.

Still, it does feel like something is happening here, Mr. Jones.

Tom Walsh, Detroit Free Press