The Association of Public Land-Grant Universities’ 2019 innovation and economic prosperity award was awarded to the First Customer and Small Company Innovation programs. Both initiatives are part of the The University of Michigan’s Economic Growth Institute. Since 2013, this award has commemorated exemplary leadership and innovation in the fields of entrepreneurship and technological economic growth. 

Both programs aim to meet the diverse needs of startups and small businesses in Michigan by creating jobs, bringing products to market and capitalizing on the University’s academic resources to provide research and educational opportunities. The Economic Growth Institute more generally aims to better the Michigan economy by providing services and allocating resources to all market levels. 

Vikesh Chandrashekar, project manager of the First Customer program, said the Economic Growth Institute improves the Michigan economy by engaging and supporting the many contributing entities.

“The economic growth institute, the way I like to describe it, is an outward facing institute at the University where we work with regional companies and try to bolster the economy that way,” Chandrashekar said. “There’s three facets of our engagement. One is through working with manufacturing companies, another one is working with technology ventures and entrepreneurs and the third is doing research that guides this kind of work as well.”

Chandrashekar also spoke on the specific purpose of the First Customer project as a major supporter of the technology economy in Michigan, helping to bring new company’s products to market in the most efficient and successful way. 

“We work with technology companies in helping them get their customers,” Chandrashekar said. “Technology ventures here in Michigan are heavy in technical talent, but where they might be lacking is in their sales and marketing capability… We’re trying to provide them assistance, connect them to the resources in the state in terms of consultants.”

Mary McCardwell, project manager of the Small Company Innovation program, said the goal of this project has been to develop and support small businesses and entrepreneurs with the necessary resources by forming partnerships with Michigan’s 15 public universities.

“We want to support innovation… a lot of innovation comes from small business, a lot of jobs are created by small business,” McCardwell said. “This particular program was for those small businesses specifically that were commercializing tech.”

Paula Sorrell, director of the Economic Growth Institute, said the programs were initiated in response to a statewide demand for jobs and economic revitalization following a recession seven years ago.

“The state needed to diversify the economy — so much of it was heavily reliant on the automotive industry and really the universities were such a huge asset for the state to be able to leverage those into helping small companies and to helping get innovative companies launched,” Sorrell said. “That was why it was really important to create it in the first place.” 

LSA sophomore Joshua Burg, a political science and economics major, shared his thoughts on the importance of cross University collaboration and the high educational value for everyone involved in such an opportunity.

“I think fostering cooperation between universities is one of the key aspects of being in a university,” Burg said. “It’s how we can first of all learn… by working together towards a common goal and that common goal being altruistic, we can both follow a moral mission while also furthering our own experiences and knowledge within economics.” 

Steven Wilson, associate director of the institute, said their approach towards fostering economic innovation is particularly unique, as each business’ needs are different and the institute responds accordingly.

“We don’t have a canned approach, we don’t have a basket of goods that solve your problem,” Wilson said. “We don’t come to the table with anything to sell. We’re always looking for the right thing for that company, regardless if that’s in our camp or in some other university’s camp… we have projects going on at the 15 other public universities because it was a better fit, it was the right thing to do.”

Wilson also reflected on what it means for the institute to have won the award and why the University stands out nationally. 

“Why our university over all others in the nation won the innovation award, was if you look at other ecosystems around the country, some of them have more gaps than others and I think in our ecosystem we fill those critical gaps,” Wilson said. 

Sorrell said the programs’ state funding is to be cut and that they will be ending shortly, but the institute will continue to serve Michigan’s businesses in different and evolving capacities. 

“These two programs, we were notified the same week that we won the award that they were being cancelled by the state. It’s unfortunate because they’ve been running for seven years now,” Sorrell said. “We’re always looking to build on the skill sets that we have and the success that we’ve created.”


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