'U' interacts with Ann Arbor startup community

By Michael Sugerman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 21, 2014

Michigan has been called the Silicon Mitten — and an integral thread of that glove’s stitching is Ann Arbor.

Student organizations tout entrepreneurial spirit abound — namely MPowered, optiMize and MHacks — and administrative facilities and programs, like the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovate Blue, foster startup ideas and passion, providing resources that turn those concepts into realities.

Even outside the University, startup enthusiasm is everywhere. Incubators and consulting firms like TechArb, Ann Arbor SPARK and Menlo Innovations are in high demand — the former two even partner with the students through Innovate Blue.

Further, the introduction of the Desai Family Accelerator in August marked a strengthened effort to cater these valuable services to parties outside the University, expanding both entrepreneurial drive and the University’s influence beyond Washtenaw County.

Tom Frank, the executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, wrote in an e-mail that Center’s growth in the last six years reflects the growing culture of entrepreneurship in Ann Arbor.

He wrote that its location in the Duderstadt Center is twice as big as its original location, and added that these offices are “rapidly” reaching capacity.

“We are always looking for more spaces we can use to facilitate student entrepreneurial activity,” Frank wrote.

In the past three years, he said the Center for Entrepreneurship has had over 6,800 undergraduates enroll in its entrepreneurship program. In the same time, more than 140 “business concepts” have been identified — and more than 20 of these each year work with TechArb to further develop their ideas.

As far as continuing to expand, Frank wrote that the Center has been working with places like Ann Arbor SPARK to provide students with more space to learn and explore.

University alum Bill Mayer, SPARK’s vice president of entrepreneur services, said Ann Arbor’s demographics are conducive to the recent boom of innovation.

“I really enjoy the fact that not only is Ann Arbor a well-educated city, but it’s a nice-sized town,” Mayer said.

He added that many companies headquartered in states more well-known for entrepreneurship, like California, plan to open offices in Ann Arbor to continue development.

“It’s just the right size pool that, as a startup, you’re not one of 10,000,” Mayer said. “You’re one of 1,000. And you can actually connect with resources … there’s all these elements available. You get to know everyone. It’s just a more manageable, smaller community.”

The reach of this movement, Mayer said, goes beyond the University, though its strong ties to the city are undeniable. He said 35 percent of the groups SPARK works with are student companies. The rest are local entrepreneurs.

A2B Bikeshare, a company co-founded by University alums Ansgar Strother and Keith Porter, is one of those success stories. An entrepreneurship class at the University sparked their desire to create cheaper bike-sharing systems, CEO Strother said.

Their program was adopted in Lansing in September 2013, becoming the first modern bike share system in the state of Michigan. Now, it’s set to roll out in Fairbanks, Alaska.

While he was still a student, Strother said the startup worked with TechArb in the development phase, in addition to the Center for Entrepreneurship. Since graduating, A2B has also worked with SPARK as it grows into what Strother calls a “real company, not just a University enterprise.”

Another Ann Arbor venture is TurtleCell, an iPhone case that comes with retractable headphones to prevent tangling. The company is mass-producing the case, and it hopes to sell 130,000 by winter.

The company was founded by University alumni Paul Schrems and Nick Turnbull and Michigan State University alum Jeremy Lindlbauer. As students, they joined TechArb, and later moved on to Ann Arbor SPARK’s incubator space.

Lindlbauer said SPARK was vital in providing the financial help to grow their business in their growth stage. Through SPARK’s business accelerator grant, TurtleCell received $50,000. The company used this money to conduct design testing, undergo product verification, buy equipment and even make an e-commerce website.

“We originally thought that we were going to do it all ourselves,” Schrems said. “We were engineers. We didn’t really know how to sell hundreds of thousands of products, and the distribution deal really allowed us to do that.”

As companies continue to grow in Ann Arbor, the excitement is propagating. The University is sending students on entrepreneurial “treks” to experience other hubs of innovation and spread the wealth of ideas.

Through a program called MEngage, the Center for Entrepreneurship has sent students to visit companies in the San Francisco area, where they tour companies like Yahoo! and Google, talk to executives and even pitch business ideas in front of local entrepreneurs and University alumni.

This year, the Center has created a similar, more localized trip to Grand Rapids. In addition, it is in the process of formalizing a “D Trek,” or an organized entrepreneurship connection event in Detroit, which will likely happen in summer 2015.

While the Center for Entrepreneurship is sending students to discover the realm of entrepreneurship outside Ann Arbor, other outside groups are targeting University students in their search for capable employees.

Another is the story of Tivvi, a mobile application that serves as a collaborative media platform for users to easily share photo and video content. The app aggregates that content with “tiles” (i.e. the “foodie tile”) and subsequently allows users to scroll through hundreds of submissions with the same label.

The startup was co-founded by two Wayne State University students, Ishpinder Sahni and Martin Hermez.

Hermez, now a junior, said he was exposed to the University as a high school student — his sister went to Michigan.

“I sat in on lots of lectures, I talked to a lot of professors … and I just knew that was kind of the hub for engineers,” Hermez said.

Each of the application’s four developers is or was a University student. Alumni include Gurminder Randhawa and Jackson Jessup; current students include Engineering senior Roy Chou and Engineering junior Jesus Morales.

“When I started this project, I thought, ‘Hey, I need motivated programmers.’ The best place to go was Ann Arbor.”