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Posted on Thu, Jul 15, 2010 : 6 a.m.

Federal government eyes opportunities to replicate University of Michigan's student entrepreneurial activity

By Nathan Bomey

Students can create jobs.

That philosophy underpinned the University of Michigan’s efforts to create an environment in which student-led companies could flourish - and now Washington is taking notice.

The U.S. government plans to consider how to replicate U-M’s student entrepreneurial initiatives on a broader scale.

The role of college student entrepreneurs in creating jobs and generating economic activity should be acknowledged and leveraged at other universities, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke said Tuesday after speaking at a forum in Ann Arbor.

Student-led companies cultivated at U-M’s TechArb incubator underscore the university’s leadership role in encouraging entrepreneurialism on campus. About a dozen companies are headquartered at the TechArb, and a few of the first companies to locate there have landed clients and are hiring new employees.

Gary Locke.JPG

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke speaks Tuesday in Ann Arbor.

Nathan Bomey |

“This is a really exciting program that you have here and one that we should think about trying to replicate all across the country,” Locke said Tuesday. “Economic development has changed so much from what it was 50 years ago, when all the economic development was really started by existing major corporations and new lines of business and new products.

“Nowadays, it’s the creative genius of any person at any stage in life, any age, and the challenge is to get those ideas identified and commercialized and provide the capital and assistance to get that product benefiting society and creating jobs.”

U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, who will co-chair the new National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the Commerce Department, said entrepreneurial energy among students is meaningful. Some 10 percent of U-M’s students have started a business by the time they enroll as freshmen.

“I was thrilled the secretary was here so he could hear in a more visceral way what the potential is,” Coleman told “They seem to be very excited about it. Since I’m co-chairing this innovation committee for the secretary, then there may be an opportunity for us to mount something nationally, and I would love it.”

Coleman said she knew of no existing federal funding opportunities for the student entrepreneurial activities the university is pursuing.

"This is the excitement, this is the future," she said. "We need to get out of the way and provide these young people a little bit of money and they will take it and run."

The U-M College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship launched the TechArb incubator in summer 2009 in cooperation with real estate firm McKinley Inc. and Ann Arbor investment firm RPM Ventures.

The summer-long experiment quickly spawned several legitimate businesses. In the fall, the university signed a long-term lease for space in the McKinley Towne Centre, down the hall from Google and Ann Arbor SPARK.

“The great thing about student and young entrepreneurs is that they are not afraid to fail, take risks and attempt what many may believe is impossible,” said Doug Neal, U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship director, in an e-mail. “Their energy, enthusiasm and creativity is incredible and will have a long term economic impact to our state.”

Among the early TechArb successes:

--Mobile app firm Mobiata grew its operation out of the TechArb offices and reaped $1 million in sales in 2009. The company recently signed a lease for an office on the second floor of the Nickels Arcade shopping corridor and plans to have up to 18 employees by the end of the year.

--Mobile software startup Mobil33t (pronounced Mobile-EET) created a free iPhone app called DoGood and sold it to media firm, which helps music fans to earn special access to online content created by their favorite bands, landed seed funding and signed a major artist, After Midnight Project.

“I think we’ve underestimated the exuberance and the ability of this younger generation,” Coleman said.

Contact's Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's newsletters.



Wed, Oct 6, 2010 : 10:39 a.m.

Way to go University of Michigans students

Somewhat Concerned

Thu, Jul 15, 2010 : 7:52 p.m.

Steve Forest, whatever his history, supports only whatever the dean of engineering (Forest's old home) pitches him. Forest may help the engineering school, but he does nothing worthwhile for innovators and entrepreneurs, on or off campus. He now is a bureaucrat who throws up roadblocks and hurdles. As for Mary Sue Coleman supporting entrepreneurship, I can't think of four innovators or real-world entrepreneurs who think that, but I can think of dozens who think she is publicity-hound fraud. She reads speeches written for her, and play acts at supporting entrepreneurship, but people who actually do entrepreneurship will be better off when she takes her act to another university, or perhaps to Washington. She is a fake, at least regarding entrepreneurship and innovation. She may be fine at other things.

Left is Right

Thu, Jul 15, 2010 : 7:17 p.m.

@Somewhat Concerned Steve Forrest has a rather long history of what might be called "academic entreprenuership"--developing technologies in university labs and having a hand in their commercialization. He's genuine. President Coleman, I don't believe, has ever claimed that she is an entrepreneur--she heads a large state university. Different skills required. But she needs to and does support entrepreneurship. (Now--as cdfa2 noted--if Michigan could get some of its ultra-conservative schools and departments to start thinking the same...) That said, I agree that there is sort of a recent gold-rush with the university highlighting many claiming to be entrepreneurs and "innovators" (maybe to pad their CVs) without recognizing those who actually continue to achieve success. Moreover, the university, through its PR machine, tends to promote the notion that the only true path to high tech entrepreneurship is through them. To both I say: Fine! Game on! Let's see what ya got! But in the end, I think we all win from this.

Somewhat Concerned

Thu, Jul 15, 2010 : 10:42 a.m.

Mary Sue Coleman knows how to politic, knows how to add an easy $200,000 to her $500,000 salary by going on the board of J&J, a company that sells to UM, knows how to use UM and state money to get her as much personal publicity as possible (useful for getting cushy board positions and her next job), but one thing she knows almost nothing about is entrepreneurship. She mouths what her VP for research tells her, and he doesn't know anything about entrepreneurship other than the PR baloney he is fed by the engineering school. Entrepreneurship is doing well in A2, but it is doing well because real entrepreneurs have learned to do it without "help" from Mary Sue, Steve Forest, and the other pretenders. If those two would consider spending less of their time and our money on PR that benefits them, personally, and more on learning about entrepreneurship, including what really goes on at UM, we and the rest of the State would be better off.


Thu, Jul 15, 2010 : 9:20 a.m.

As an entrepreneur who attended the University, it is great to see things like this happening! Hoping to help here however is needed.


Thu, Jul 15, 2010 : 9:10 a.m.

Ms. Coleman, with $220,000 Board of Director fees, is the diva of feathering one's nest three times over. That, perhaps, is her definition of "Entrepreneurship." Enjoy my money Ms. Coleman.........while it lasts.


Thu, Jul 15, 2010 : 6:38 a.m.

All these stories about UM's embracing economic development and entrepreneurialism are really nice, but if UM is really serious, then President Coleman needs to examine the policies and governance in all schools/divisions and make sure they are consistent with this philosophy. Specifically, the Med School keeps adding restrictions to the exchange of scientific communication and opportunities for collaboration. See a recent NY Times article, Such an insular community will fall further behind "peer institutions" like Harvard, The Cleveland Clinic and - gasp! - The Ohio State University. Instead of demonizing industries that make a profit, how about embracing provocative, scholarly debate that advances medicine? And guess what? UMHS has had positive financial margins for 13 years straight!