The University of Michigan and Ross School of Business Leading the Charge in the Growing Entrepreneurial and Venture Capital Scene in Michigan

Shannon Beeman
December 30, 2013

The state of Michigan may conjure up a number of images for people. Some may think of the Great Lakes. Others, the Rust Belt. Many may think of Detroit and its current struggles. But a deeper dive shows a new image for Michigan may be on the horizon, something that has been brewing for years and belies much of the news coverage. Michigan is steadily becoming a hot place for entrepreneurs and venture capital, and U-M Ross has played a central role.

What’s driving the change? Necessity, for one. The automotive industry employs far fewer than it did even in recent decades. Other big employers, such as Pfizer, drastically cut jobs in the state. That left a lot of skilled people with the time and need to pursue new ventures.

Michigan also has a wealth of research from U-M and others, as well as leadership that puts a priority on commercializing it. Further, current students and recent graduates see entrepreneurism as a way to control their destiny.

“The state has a more entrepreneurial attitude now,” says Tom Kinnear. “The general decline we observed in the recent recession stimulated a lot of people to see that all of this great research has commercial application, and we have an obligation to develop it.”

Making Michigan a good home for entrepreneurs also took a long time and much effort by the private sector, the state, and universities. The University of Michigan has made entrepreneurism a strong focus.

The entrepreneurship ball at Ross got rolling in the early ’70s, and has picked up speed ever since. The school offered its first entrepreneurial management course in 1971, and created an entrepreneurial course track with a suite of classes in 1975. In 1979, Brophy founded the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, which has become a national event. (See related story below.)

The world’s first student-led venture fund, the Wolverine Venture Fund, got its start in 1997 at Ross. Two other student-led funds followed — the Frankel Commercialization Fund and the Social Venture Fund, which were the first student funds in those specialties.

In 1999, a $10 million gift from Sam Zell, AB ’63/JD ’66, and Ann Lurie established the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies (ZLI) to lead and organize teaching and research around entrepreneurship. It also hosts major entrepreneurial events and the Michigan Business Challenge, and offers Dare to Dream Grants for student startups. Ross’ ZLI and the U-M College of Engineering joined forces to create TechArb, a startup incubator for U-M students.

Most recently, Ross and the College of Engineering graduated the first class of Master of Entrepreneurship candidates, now a joint degree between the two schools.

In fact, entrepreneurial courses, programs, and activities abound across U-M and are hosted at units such as:

  • Ross School, Zell Lurie Institute
  • College of Engineering, Center for Entrepreneurship
  • Law School, Zell Entrepreneurship and Law Program
  • Medical Innovation Center
  • Office of Technology Transfer
  • Business Engagement Center
  • Office of the Vice President for Research
  • First Customer Program at the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy

“Across campus, we are encouraging students to experiment, to innovate, and to learn that failure is not a negative,” says U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. “We have a rich variety of programs and resources designed to nurture among our students the skills, the vision, the drive, and the willingness to take risks that are the hallmark of successful entrepreneurs.”

Published on Oct 3, 2013, read more about the State of Entrepreneurship in the Fall 2013 edition of Dividend Magazine: