Ann Arbor and Detroit. They are less than an hour away from each other. One has the highest internet usage in the state. The other, the lowest. Ann Arbor is decently packed together; if you look at the Detroit region especially, it’s very geographically spread out.
Why should they care about one another? We sat down with Kelly LaPierre, managing director of the Desai Accelerator, at the Mackinac Policy Conference and talked about that. She’s worked trying to get things started in both cities.
For background, the Desai Accelerator is currently working with six companies who each received a seed investment of $25,000 and $500,000 in support in services. Those companies are:
- Ash & Anvil – affordable, stylish, everyday clothing provider for “shorter guys”; co-founded and led by Venture for America Fellow Steven Mazur and Eric Huang
- Clash Audio – a neuroscience-based streaming service that uses human curation, neuroscience research and popular music theory to analyze new music and distill millions of songs into a small, optimized database
- Gaudium – creator of anime-style mobile games; runner-up of 2016 Michigan Business Challenge
- MySwimPro – social fitness platform for swimmers and triathletes; advised by Peter Vanderkaay, University of Michigangraduate and four-time Olympic swimming medalist
- Roomations – online platform and subscription service that provides homeowners easy access to interior design services online, including 3D room designs, shopping lists, style boards and personal design advice, by crowdsourcing freelancer designers
- Sultant – a cloud-based SaaS platform that acts as a digital financial “advisor” for small businesses by providing quick and meaningful insights, actionable recommendations and intuitive visualizations
Daily Detroit: Why is it important that Ann Arbor and Detroit have connections? As I understand it, the accelerator has startup businesses that are both connected to Detroit and Ann Arbor. How much do you view them as two separate areas or do you view them as one?
Kelly LaPierre: I believe that they need to start thinking of themselves as one as opposed to two separates. I moved back to Michigan to be in Detroit and part of that community. I was immersed in that and embraced that sort of identity. Then, I came to Ann Arbor where I realized that there was a huge distinction as far as those separate identities. I felt like that was huge opportunity, and that these cities need to work together in order to be successful in whatever they’re doing.
I think it’s really important. That’s why, now that I’m in Ann Arbor, I try to insist that all of University of Michigan students that I interact with, make sure that they get out to Detroit and experience what’s happening there. I try to pull my contacts from Detroit who started companies to get to experience the things happening in Ann Arbor. I think as much as it’s only forty miles or, I don’t know the exact mileage, forty-five minutes away, right? It feels farther.
Once you just get people there, I think they realize the potential of what they could do with that city and start working together.
Daily Detroit: What kind of changes have you seen in the entrepreneurial scene since you came back?
LaPierre: So I first came back to Michigan in 2012 and worked at Bizdom, which was Dan Gilbert’s entrepreneurship accelerator. That was my first exposure to the scene. That is ultimately what made me decide to move back here is that I felt like there was so much possibility and so much energy, and unlike other big cities that I’ve lived in, where it was a lot more competitive and each person in for themselves, I felt like in Michigan, and specifically in Detroit, it was all for one sort of attitude. That I really embraced and wanted to be a part of.
When I look at how much the entrepreneurial scene has evolved, I think it started with a couple few people and now it’s built outright. There are large corporations that are identifying the opportunity the entrepreneurship is and embracing that. You’ve got universities like The University of Michigan doing that as well. You’ve got a lot of different levels instead of just grassroots, startups, scrappy founders doing something in their basement or in their garage. You have a lot of people coming together to support that. I think that’s really great. I think though the next big opportunity, I’m kind of just going to keep going from there.
Daily Detroit: So what’s next?
LaPierre: I think is that right now my world has been so focused on kind of tech entrepreneurship, because that’s the really common, well-known, sexy type of entrepreneurship.
I think when it comes to Detroit and Michigan and the region, for entrepreneurship to be successful, you need to look at the different assets that the state has, and the arts and the music and some of the core things that have defined this region, and make sure that we’re continuing to innovate and build new companies within that, and that we have the support systems in order to do that.
There are plenty of talented artists and musicians and people out there who are starting new restaurants, but how do we provide that infrastructure around them to help them start those sorts of businesses?
Daily Detroit: What does “support system” mean?
LaPierre: I think it can mean a lot of different things. I think at a bare minimum what I think the most important resource to have as a startup is that sort of community around you, as far as other founders who have been there, done that, people who are doing it alongside you, people that can offer you mentorship, guidance, people that can be there through that emotional roller coaster journey to help you get through those challenges.
I think trying to connect people who are doing it and may just not know about the other people is really important.
Whether that be a collaborative workspace, whether it be an online community, whether it be a formal program where you introduce people to different mentors, I think that’s kind of that next step of having those different verticals focus on arts or music or starting restaurants or fashion and that sort of thing.
Daily Detroit: Do you consider roads and transit as an integral part of this support system, or do you think it’s going to happen anyway?
LaPierre: That’s a really good question. I think it’s an integral part. I think it’s very similar to what I was saying in that that’s part of kind of the assets that Michigan has as far as expertise in transportation and mobility. I do think that it’s important to happen. I think, I do think it’s going to happen either way, but I think what we can do is try to learn from that experience, and that they’re probably a little bit farther ahead than maybe some of these other industries that are going to be starting to innovate and create companies around.
What can we learn from how they did that, how they worked with the big companies, how they worked with government and others in order to do that to kind of spread across other areas?
Daily Detroit: If someone wants to get involved with your organization, how could they do that?
LaPierre: We are currently in our program and we’re working with six companies right now over the next sixteen weeks.
As far as people who want to get involved, you can check out our website which is DesaiAccelerator.umich.edu. We are happy to share with you about different events that we’re hosting, see if there’s a way for you to get involved and give back to the startups that we founded, work with the students that we have interning, et cetera.
Reach out as this program is a startup in and of itself. We just started in 2015, so we’re still being entrepreneurial and innovating and changing new things. We welcome ideas and people who want to get involved.