The Detroit region is a hotspot for small business development and entrepreneurship and Ann Arbor is a major part of it. While primarily known as the home of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor has emerged as a technology center and a regional hub for aspiring entrepreneurs.
And a major force behind this emergence is Ann Arbor SPARK.
SPARK, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, is focused on development prosperity by utilizing skills to attract, develop and invest in businesses and helping them thrive and become successful. With partners such as Michigan Economic Development Corp., Michigan Works, city and municipal partners, academic institutions, and others, its primary focus is to support the company and business growth and the creation of jobs.
I recently talked to Donna Doleman, Senior Vice President, Operations and Communications, Ann Arbor SPARK. Doleman develops and executes the marketing and communications strategy to enhance brand awareness of SPARK and assisted companies while providing oversight for the organization’s operations. With varied experiences, including strategic marketing consulting for corporate, governmental, nonprofit organizations, and small businesses, Doleman, who has also been an entrepreneur, has been with SPARK since 2011.
We recently discussed the organization, entrepreneurial support for small businesses and Ann Arbor’s emergence as a regional entrepreneur center.
Lee: What is Ann Arbor SPARK and how is it funded?
Doleman: Ann Arbor SPARK is an economic development organization committed to growing the Ann Arbor region’s economy. A non-profit organization, Ann Arbor SPARK is advancing the region by encouraging and supporting business acceleration, attraction, retention and expansion. We proactively identify and meet the needs of business at every stage, from start-ups to established, growth-stage companies.
SPARK’s sources of funding are corporate, academic partners, and local governments in Washtenaw and Livingston Counties. Additional funding comes in the form of grants and contracts from the state and federal government, and foundations. Our entrepreneurial services activities are funded by the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti SmartZone.
Lee: And what services does the organization provide for entrepreneurs?
Doleman: We recognize that every startup is different and they all need different types of support. SPARK offers networking and events, educational events, boot camp, seminars and accelerator services. We work with mentors and consultants who can help address a very specific challenge, such as intellectual property or marketing or accounting. We offer microloans to help companies take advantage of a specific opportunity that would help them grow. And, our talent services, that connect employers and potential employees, are a great resource, too.
Lee: Why are companies choosing Ann Arbor to start a business?
Doleman: Ann Arbor is a cost-effective location to start a business, especially compared to the coasts, and it has a deep pool of technical talent to support growing businesses. Companies know that they’ll be able to find a world-class developer or engineer or designer right here in Ann Arbor. Plus, there’s an established ecosystem with a robust network of support for entrepreneurs here.
Another great resource for startups here is the Michigan Economic Development Corp and the regional SmartZones, which is a competitive advantage compared to other states. The SmartZones ensure that education and funding is available, long-term, to entrepreneurs. In the Ann Arbor region, our SmartZone, the LDFA(Local Development Finance Authority), provides the capital needed to facilitate the development of private, high-tech enterprises and commercialization of research products being developed at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University and within the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti SmartZone. The SmartZones show that Michigan supports growing its entrepreneurial economy.
Lee: Recently SPARK celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Looking back, what are key facts supporting SPARK’s business and financial impact on Ann Arbor’s downtown economy?
Doleman: Ann Arbor SPARK was formed in the wake of Pfizer leaving the community. Since its inception, SPARK’s work has grown the economy, retained and attracted talent here, and has been a leader in creating the entrepreneurial ecosystem in this region. By the numbers, since 2009, startups in Ann Arbor have collectively secured more than $24.8 million in grants and raised $96.3 million in private equity. Established businesses that SPARK helped have committed more than $1.8 billion in investment and announced more than 14,000 jobs in this region.
Lee: Ann Arbor’s been gaining recognition as a tech hub. How important has that branding and marketing been to your efforts to grow the economy?
Doleman: Marketing the region is a imperative! The more we talk about the industries, the innovative businesses, and the people choosing to work and live here, the more we can shine a light that this region offers an attractive climate for companies. We partner with companies to tell their stories. This allows us to attract talent that wants to work for these companies. The result: Growing companies. People working here. They buy houses here, shop here, and contribute directly to the economic health of our area.
Lee: Please provide an example of a “success story” and what how did SPARK fuel it?
Doleman: RetroSense just secured FDA approval for human clinical studies of its therapy for one of the leading causes of vision loss and blindness. In January, the company raised a $6M Series A, including investment from outside of Michigan.
Ann Arbor SPARK has provided support to RetroSense since 2010, including investment through the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund, grants for pre-clinical and clinical trial planning, corporate identity, branding, and website, and study design and validation. RetroSense was a client at SPARK’s accelerator, which is funded by the by the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti SmartZone (LDFA), since 2012. Recently, the company was able to complete market research through SPARK’s internship program.
Lee: Because of stories just discussed, you recently expanded your downtown Ann Arbor accelerator–SPARK Central. What’s behind this expansion?
Doleman: Ann Arbor SPARK’s Central fourth floor can accommodate 10-20 person startups, and also serves as a temporary space for companies that are considering establishing a presence in downtown Ann Arbor. We are meeting the demand that growing companies need for flexible space. These companies want to be downtown and they know that the people they want to hire want to be part of downtown, where there are a variety of places to eat, things to do, parks to visit, etc. With this new space, SPARK can now support the earliest startup ventures, on the first floor of the accelerator, as well as growing, second stage startups, who are incubated on SPARK’s Central’s third floor.
Lee: Advice you can offer to someone thinking of starting a business?
Doleman: Ask for help!! This region is ripe with resources for entrepreneurs. This region is also rich with others who have started businesses and are happy to share their expertise with others. It’s easy to tap into the support that’s available here and hit the ground running versus trying to go it alone.
Contact information/website: AnnArborUSA.org