YPSILANTI – Is Ann Arbor the next Silicon Valley?

Not likely. But local business leaders, along with the University administration, hope to cultivate their own hi-tech commercial hub in the surrounding region to boost the city and the state’s economy.

Elected officials and local companies convened yesterday to address Michigan’s ailing economy at the annual Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce conference known by its new name, Impact 2005.

Once a mainstay of Michigan’s economy, the state’s automotive industry is in decline and business entrepreneurs and state leaders agreed it’s time to restructure the economy. Cities in Southeast Michigan would be at the forefront of this change, conference panelists said, as these cities have a growing, but largely unknown resource they can use to revitalize the economy – high-tech business sectors.

“We have to be prepared for this changing economy,” said James Epolito, president and chief executive officer of Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

“We have to embrace high-tech jobs.”

Conference panelists suggested strategies for Ann Arbor and other southeast Michigan cities to further develop these high-tech hubs in order for them to become pillars of the state’s economy.

Integral to this effort is for businesses to capitalize on research from state universities like the University of Michigan.

Because the University produces research from biotech to information technology, panelists said cities like Ann Arbor are poised to become robust high-tech commercial hubs if they can attract University graduates and create a marketable product.

Marvin Parnes, University associate vice president for research, said the University sponsored Impact 2005 to promote the need for partnerships between businesses and University researchers.

“We see that the well-being of Ann Arbor is important to (the University’s life). So we have been a very active participant,” Parnes said.

“To pull out economic developments, we need to make (the University) available, and we need partners to help realize the economic developments.”

The University has helped to facilitate this exchange in the past several years with the UM Tech Transfer office, which acts as a liaison between researchers and businesses, and which has seen a steady increase in revenue generated since its inception in 1983. In the fiscal year 2004, UM Tech Transfer generated a revenue of about $12 million and reported 285 invention disclosures.

But most recently, the University strengthened its technology transfer efforts in May by pledging up to $1 million dollars to form SPARK, an Ann Arbor economic development group.

Led by entrepreneur Rick Snyder, a former University assistant professor, SPARK aims to develop a high-tech hub by doubling the number of technology companies and tripling tech jobs in the area by 2010.

Snyder said SPARK currently is focused on attracting CEOs to Ann Arbor in the hope that their commitment will act as a catalyst to spawn technology companies.

But in regards to University students, Snyder said SPARK hopes to attract graduate students in high-tech fields by establishing a University liaison officer that can spot talent.

“We are looking at the Medical School and LSA for physics and chemistry students. – We are trying to create programs to get students interested,” Snyder said.

Echoing the Cool Cities initiative by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, conference panelists said in order to develop as hi-tech commercial hubs, cities need to keep college students from leaving the state.

Sabrina Keeley, president and chief executive officer of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, said hopefully in the long term this would lead to more jobs for University graduates.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *