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Ross Students Seek to Revitalize, Redefine Detroit

1/24/2011 --

Revitalization & Business Conference shows business students can make a name for themselves by staying in Michigan.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A deep talent pool. Fertile ground for innovation. New technology taking hold. Venture capital and assistance at the ready. A more reasonable cost of living than you can find on either coast.

Those are the assets Detroit and southeast Michigan posses, yet convincing young talent to recognize that and stay in the region has been a daunting task for the state. Certainly the area's image has suffered with the decline of the auto industry and local economy.

But that's yesterday's news, said Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford Jr. He delivered a keynote presentation to Ross students attending the the Revitalization & Business Conference: Focus Detroit Jan. 20-21. What's emerging now, Ford said, is a technology driven-game that Michigan and Detroit can win, and a place where young business leaders can make a name for themselves.

The revolution in engine technology, electric cars and their batteries, in-vehicle entertainment, and communication systems is developing quickly. So far, Michigan is in the lead.

"There's nothing going on in Silicon Valley or anywhere else that's as advanced as what's going on here," Ford said, adding, "It's time to stop losing our best and brightest to Wall Street. I'm sick of that."

He noted that 100 years ago, Detroit was a sleepy town until his great-grandfather Henry Ford revolutionized the country and the American economy by mass-producing affordable automobiles. The industry is on the cusp of another revolution, he said, this time driven by new technology.

"The best and the brightest and the smart money are all going to be descending on Michigan," Ford said. Though the region has problems to solve, much of the battle is one of image. It's still tough to recruit people to come to the area to work, but once they're here, Ford said, "they love it" and stay.

The Revitalization and Business Conference grew out of a cross-University effort by students to illuminate the vast opportunities for business growth and innovation in Detroit. The conference included tours and meetings downtown, as well as panels with entrepreneurs, developers, and speakers hosted by the Ross School's Real Estate Club. Presenters included Ford and DTE Energy Chairman Anthony Earley, among others.

"If you're a bright, young person who wants to make a difference, you have the opportunity to do that in Detroit," said Earley, a longtime booster of the region. "In another town, you have to pay dues for years and years. If you're willing to work and if you're committed, you can make a difference very quickly here. That's a unique opportunity we need to sell."

While that opportunity is there, the region's business scene had been dominated by industrial giants for a long time. This means the risk-taking, entrepreneurial mindset, and infrastructure for new talent is still developing.

But it's developing quickly and the mindset is changing, said those involved in funding new companies. The shock of 2008 made it clear to everyone that business as usual was no longer an option.

All the pieces—such as venture capital, training, and assistance—are there. And increasingly there are people and organizations to help entrepreneurs put them together.

Josh Linkner, founder of tech success story ePrize, recently formed Detroit Venture Partners to help nurture other local startups. Such nascent operations will find numerous advantages in Detroit, such as lower start-up costs, plenty of talent, and limited barriers to entry.

"Now is one of the best times to start a company and Michigan is one of the best places to do it," Linkner said.

Chris Rizik, a lawyer turned venture capitalist, noted that in the worst recession since the Great Depression, some of the area's big corporate players stepped forward to help fund the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund, which led to millions more in venture investment.

"The culture has changed to the point where people recognize it," he said.

Dan Izzo, training and launch leader for entrepreneur academy and investor BizdomU, challenged students to embrace risk.

"You have to be careful about that siren song of stability you hear," Izzo said. "If you crave stability, you're kidding yourself. Life is chaos."

The region has a great customer base in the automotive manufacturers, technology manufacturers, three large research universities, and big health systems. There's a growing demand for new ideas and a willingness to entertain experiments, said Brian Balasia, president and founder of business process engineering firm Digerati Inc.

"The metro Detroit region is a big laboratory that's hungry for ideas," he said. "The barriers to test those ideas are very low."

To be sure, the region still has challenges. Ford and Earley noted it will be hard to boost the city of Detroit's population significantly until the city's public school system drastically improves.

But Earley also said the fractured political climate that held the metro area back has improved significantly with the elections of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Governor Rick Snyder. The two leaders appear to be on the same page, which hasn't always been the case between Lansing and Detroit.

"One of our challenges has been the lack of regional planning," Earley said, noting the current relationship with Snyder and Bing is "one of the pluses."

—Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,