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Accelerating Innovation: Tight-knit entrepreneurial ecosystem helping to boost state’s economy

By Melissa Anders

A large and growing network of incubators, accelerators, research facilities and startups is driving Michigan forward in its campaign to position itself as a leader in the next-generation technology and mobility race.

Business accelerators and incubators help startups get off the ground by providing guidance, services and resources they might not otherwise know how to access. While these organizations can offer access to capital, their main focus is on other types of assistance such as mentorship from experienced industry leaders, networking, market research, office space and general business support. Since so many startups fail, entrepreneurs turn to incubators and accelerators to help them beat the odds and grow into successful businesses.

These organizations are helping to bring new technology for automotive and the Internet of Things (IoT) to market while promoting Michigan as a forerunner in not only automotive, but also IT, data and advanced manufacturing.

“It really is an ecosystem of service providers, catalyst connectors and then corporate partners and investors who help these companies grow,” said NextEnergy president and CEO Jean Redfield.

NextEnergy offers a wide range of services, including R&D demonstration programs, labs, incubator space and business consulting.

Each year a cohort of eight to 15 companies or pre-startup research teams go through NextEnergy’s seven-week accelerator program called I-Corps Energy and Transportation. Participants learn the “lean startup” methodology and are sent into the field to conduct as many as 100 customer interviews in an effort to speed up the commercialization of their technologies.

NextEnergy provides participants with a network of about 100 industry advisors to help along the way. Upon completion, a number of participants have found their first customer or pilot opportunities and/or earned investment or government funding, Redfield said.

The Macomb-OU INCubator is a more traditional business incubator that is operated in conjunction with the city of Sterling Heights, Macomb County and Oakland University. Its incubator space is located in the Velocity building in the Technology Advancement SmartZone of Sterling Heights.

The incubator has assisted companies in a wide range of industries, such as cybersecurity business Blackbourne Worldwide and LogiCoul Solutions, which develops technology to improve lead acid and lithium ion batteries.

Velocity also is home to the Michigan Cyber Range, a space where companies can perform cybersecurity tests. This area has become increasingly important as automotive and defense companies deploy more connected and autonomous vehicles. Most small businesses can’t afford their own labs, so they can rent hours on the range, says Vicky Rad, Macomb County’s deputy director of planning and development.

The county offers guidance to companies in their early stages as well as once they are ready to mature and graduate by helping them find permanent office space and a talented workforce, Rad said.

“It’s kind of like the unspoken gem in the room as companies understand the value of having somebody to help guide them through the process,” she said. “Historically the companies that are here in Macomb County all started off as a startup at one point and they’re definitely our bread and butter, so we want to continue to see that growth.”

More than 9,300 people have attended events hosted by the Macomb-OU INCubator since 2012. It has helped create more than 220 high-tech jobs and retain about 360 jobs, according to its website.

Across the state, Seamless in Grand Rapids pairs IoT startups with major Michigan-based companies in the office, consumer product, retail, health care and transportation industries. Seamless provides a soft landing spot where startups can collaborate with these West Michiganbased enterprises to test and commercialize emerging technologies.

While other accelerators promote startups that strive to disrupt major industry players, Seamless bills itself as a commercialization program that intentionally builds collaboration between enterprises and startups, said Mike Morin, chief operating officer at Seamless and parent organization Start Garden.

Fourteen startups have been through the program in just more than a year. The intensive program compresses about 18 months of work into 12 weeks, saving the startups both time and money, Morin said. Upon completion, they can enter further development contracts, sourcing agreements, or technology licensing agreements. For example, Seamless connected AlSentis, a provider of innovative touch recognition technologies, with office furniture maker Steelcase and auto supplier Faurecia. The companies became investors in AlSentis and are working to deploy products utilizing its technology.

Melissa Anders is a metro Detroit native and freelance writer.