New Energy Is On the Rise

By Leslie Mertz

The startup scene in Michigan is accelerating, says Paul Riser, managing director of technology-based entrepreneurship at TechTown Detroit. Located on the north end of Wayne State University’s Detroit campus, TechTown is one of Detroit’s most established non-profit business accelerators/incubators.

“I see a consistent influx of new energy and people who are willing to commit to building excellent companies in the city of Detroit and the Metro Detroit area,” says Riser. “There is phenomenal opportunity for this region, and many people are starting to recognize that.” 

Year after year, Riser has seen “great percentage increases” in the number of venture-based startups in Detroit, including more than two dozen that are currently active, up more than 30 percent from last year. 

“While Southeast Michigan may not be breaking records when compared with like-sized metropolitan areas across the country, you have to remember that we’re fairly nascent with our entrance into the tech-focused, startup space. And we are trending in the right way,” he says. 

Leveraging resources
An advantage of still being early in the tech-startup arena is that the Metro Detroit region can learn from the successes and failures of other regions, such as the East Coast and West Coast, Riser says.

“This gives us a chance to adopt best practices and adapt them to be unique to us, so that we’re not duplicating what doesn’t add value, but we are thinking strategically and acting accordingly.” 

Up-and-coming areas in Metro Detroit and around the state of Michigan include healthcare, and specifically the digital health space; agricultural and food technology; mobility, including connected and autonomous vehicle solutions; and especially IoT, or Internet of Things, Riser says. 

“I’m seeing IoT slowly but distinctly emerge with a range of sensor-based ideas, opportunities and solutions, to not only provide solutions within single verticals, but also IoT and sensor-based solutions that spread horizontally across multiple verticals, and that is quite interesting,” he says.

Added to that, the state and the city of Detroit are experiencing upticks in the amount of venture capital investment in the entrepreneur community. 

“It was recently reported that the number of new companies receiving investments over the last decade in the state of Michigan is four times the national rate right now,” Riser says. 

Sean Ainsworth of RetroSense Therapeutics, winner of the Techtown Detroit Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Sean Ainsworth of RetroSense Therapeutics, winner of the Techtown Detroit Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Entrepreneurial growth
To keep moving in a positive direction, especially in regard to tech-focused startups, the state needs to develop its employee pool, he says. 

“It’s going to require core, deep tech talent, and I think that we’re really starting to turn the corner in recognizing that talent is a necessary element to complement the myriad of programs and support resources here.” 

That awareness includes the need to draw underrepresented groups into entrepreneurship. 

“We are moving in the right direction and there are wonderful programs that are evolving. We have to look more broadly than just diversity among types of startups. I’m also talking about diversity with respect to gender, ethnicity and culture, so we can get them to be engaged and to participate as entrepreneurs, and beyond that, as key decision makers, investors and board members within our growing entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Riser says. 

Where there’s a will …
TechTown Detroit is taking on the challenge of helping diverse entrepreneurs make the leap into the business world with multiple programs, including DTX Launch Detroit, TechTown Business Incubator Center and TechTown BLOCKS program.

“We have that range of programs so we can provide a continuum of services to ensure startups don’t fall through the cracks and so they can come to us for help in figuring out where to go and whom to see within the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Riser says. 

A positive outlook
Things are looking very good in Michigan for startups, and word is starting to get out, says Riser. 

“I’ve been meeting with international delegations and hearing from people outside the state who are impressed with Detroit and its emergence as a hub for tech startups. Here in Michigan, we need to see that too. We tend to undervalue what we have because we’re in the trenches every day, but it’s important that we also take a step back and recognize the great assets and talent that we have right here in Metro Detroit.”