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A business conference, minus the formalities

Patrick Barron/Daily
People discuss how to make Michigan entrepreneurially competitive by showcasing their ideas at the North Campus Research Complex on Thursday. Buy this photo

By Ariana Assaf, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 7, 2013

When brainstorming is driven by the piercing sound of a steam whistle, there are bound to be interesting results.

Students and professional entrepreneurs gathered in the North Campus Research Complex Thursday for “unConference,” a non-traditional forum in which participants were free to suggest topics of discussion on current economic challenges.

The event's organizers hoped participants would thrive on its lack of formal structure and philosophy of free expression. After a short introduction to kick off the event, participants were encouraged to brainstorm ideas or topics and eventually present them to the group of over 250 attendees.

An idea board dominated the front of the room, covered in a colorful array of paper notes representing a huge variety of discussion topics. The topics would be used as fuel for discussion within smaller groups.

When it was time to move along, a steam whistle signaled participants to wrap up their conversations and continue to the next idea. The whistle was made by Maker Works, an Ann-Arbor-based workshop for craftsmen and designers.

UnConference was hosted by Entrepreneurs Engage, a collaboration between the University’s Technology Transfer and the Michigan Venture Capital Association. Both of these organizations aim to develop and market new technology as well as to encourage venture capital in the community.

This year’s conference was a continuation from the inaugural conference last June in which Governor Rick Snyder spoke about burgeoning business opportunities in the state.

Funding for the event was provided by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a statewide economic development organization.

Kenneth Nisbet, the executive director of Tech Transfer, said people were encouraged to “come without an agenda."

This year’s event expanded its duration and the number of invitees over last year. This year there were three different sessions in which groups could gather to discuss their ideas; up from two last year. UnConference invitations were also extended to student entrepreneurs.

“The University is a great resource to improve the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Nisbet said. “And the student entrepreneurial culture here is great.”

Nisbet also said that a big goal of unConference is building relationships between professional and student entrepreneurs.

Engineering senior Rama Mwenesi, a student entrepreneur and the president and founder of E-Magine, learned from his project that common motivations can make a team of very different specialists successful.

E-Magine is a student run entrepreneurial organization that is working to bring solar-panel-powered Internet access to rural areas in Africa. The team is currently made up of eight members with majors ranging from engineering to Chinese.

“I heard about the concept of off-the-grid technology providing Internet access to people in remote locations and knew that a prototype had been made,” Mwenesi said. “But once the donation money ran out, the project wasn’t sustainable.”

That setback led him to investigate how to bring long-lasting technology to rural locations and ultimately led him to use self-sustaining solar panels to power the project.

In fitting fashion, the closing remarks came not from the event coordinators but from attendants. When people were asked to share what they appreciated about the event, comments included the aspect community-building, the opportunities extended to student participants and the inviting open space that encouraged engagement.

Nisbet said: “We’re achieving high-level conversations that stimulate new ideas, and all this research is to benefit people and give back.”