Business competitions spotlight Michigan entrepreneurs

Paula Sorrell

On March 31 the annual GreenLight Michigan Business Model Competition will take place in East Lansing. This business plan competition, like many others across the state, is a collaboration among numerous public and private organizations, all with a vested interest in seeing Michigan thrive. Greenlight, in particular, has a wonderful track record of involving nine universities (all are welcome) to participate. Strong companies based on solid technologies, most borne of university research, are the hallmark of Michigan’s entrepreneurial success over the past 10 years.

Michigan has always been known for its entrepreneurial roots in the auto industry, but less known is the work happening in recent years to put Michigan on par with entrepreneurial hubs in Silicon Valley, Boston and New York.

Michigan sees the formation of roughly 250 new tech companies each year, leverages about $35 in private or federal investment for every dollar of state funding supporting new companies, and has grown the number of venture funds doing business in the state from a handful just a decade ago, to 35 today.

In about 2004, John Doerr, a venture capitalist with San Francisco-based Kleiner Perkins, said to a crowd at the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, “Do you want to get things moving? Run a business plan competition!” And we did. … A few, in fact.

Business plan competitions, like GreenLight, the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition (AMIC), the CMU New Venture Competition, Great Lakes Entrepreneur Quest, 1,000 Businesses, Dare to Dream, and many others, fill a gap in the entrepreneurial ecosystem by creating an opportunity for entrepreneurs to connect with investors, R&D professionals, business accelerators and incubators, and investment capital from a number of sources. AMIC alone has 88 venture capital firms represented in its judging panel. Those 88 firms wouldn’t otherwise be looking at Michigan companies or visiting Detroit without the business plan competition invitation. It just wouldn’t happen.

But it’s not just about the competition. Don’t get me wrong, the prize money and bragging rights are great for those who win it, but the real value is getting companies motivated to improve their business models, craft their presentations and pitches (with expert feedback along the way), and network with supporting organizations, like-minded tech entrepreneurs, and with investors. The business plan competition platform also draws investors to the state and companies are finding that they no longer have to move elsewhere to secure funding.

According to SkySpecs, a leader in drone technology headquartered in Ann Arbor and the 2014 winner of AMIC, business plan competitions benefit Michigan by showcasing the talent in the state and building excitement around the growing entrepreneur community (in the case of AMIC, an average of 500 companies participate each year). Their magnitude and competitiveness is attracting investors and talent to the state, and helping further the growth of new companies.

By supporting and connecting resources in this manner, business plan competitions and their many supporters are making it increasingly difficult for companies and investors to ignore our state. While there is still work to be done, Michigan can no longer be considered the “fly-over” state as global investors had once perceived.

I’d encourage anyone who has an interest in our state’s economy to attend one of these events and see firsthand how our state is leveraging Michigan talent to keep growing companies right here, and attract talent and resources all looking to be a part of our entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Paula Sorrell is senior vice president for entrepreneurship, innovation and venture capital at the Michigan Economic Development Corp.