Evolving Entrepreneurial Midwest Eco-System Gets Industry Buzzing

Shannon Beeman
April 19, 2011

Jonathan Murray, Managing Director of Cleveland, Ohio-based Early Stage Partners, says he’s seen a seismic shift in the way deals are developed. A decade ago, he says, the focus was on rescuing core industries that were on the decline. But “reality” has since fostered a growing interest in entrepreneurship. “Everybody said you cannot save old line manufacturing companies by just sheer willpower,” he said. “You’ve got to be forward looking in what you do. And people started to study this and take actions around it. Once people realized that that’s what you had to do, everybody got serious about it.”

It was the start of a new entrepreneurial eco-system, Murray said. Like a true ecological balance, this new environment needed many parts functioning together – each with equal importance. Technology transfer, seed and pre-seed capital, incubators and accelerators, governmental policy, grant programs and foundations, local entrepreneurial and managerial talent and venture capital firms all operate as one to get a new industry buzzing.  Murray says it’s been growing in Michigan – and the Midwest – for years. “We’ve been very engaged for the last four or five years in helping the Michigan entrepreneurial ecosystem develop,” he said. “It involves a variety of activities: Ann Arbor SPARK and Automation Alley-type accelerators, spin-offs from universities, states making available pools of capital for investment in early stage and growth companies. And it’s happening all across the Midwest. It’s creating many more opportunities and a much greater emphasis on entrepreneurship, and companies that really have the potential to create the economy of the future.”

Murray specializes in the IT sector, where he’s seen the cost of developing products and getting to market drop dramatically in the last few years. “It’s actually a lower cost activity than it used to be to invest in an early stage IT company, and that creates opportunities for different types of financings than just venture capital financing,” he said. “A lot of early stage IT deals are now being financed by a mix of venture capital firms, angel groups, and accelerators all coming together to do investments as a group. That didn’t used to be the case five years ago.”

Early Stage Partners will lead a panel discussion on the opening day of the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium. “It’s a high-quality event – good people, good networking opportunities, good companies presenting,” said Murray. “We’ve gotten a lot of value out of it. We can go there and see a hundred people that we know and want to spend time with in a concentrated place and time.”