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Posted on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 : 5:54 a.m.

Experimental 'UnConference' paired U-M innovators and venture capitalists to cultivate business

By Ben Freed


Rich Sheridan posts ideas for discussion at the "UnConference" Thursday evening.

Angela Cesere I

UnConference Rule #1: Whoever shows up are the right people.

Ken Nisbet, director of the office for Technology Transfer at the University of Michigan, knew he needed to hold an event to bring the knowledge and innovation community together. To attract business leaders and venture capitalists in an industry famous for its non-conformist attitude the office decided to hold an "UnConference" with the Michigan Venture Capital Association.

"The idea is that there is no agenda, so we have no idea how this is going to go," emcee Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovation, said as he opened the conference Thursday evening.

This event not only attracted the Ann Arbor business community. Governor Rick Snyder made an appearance, and told the assembled crowd that their fire and passion was what would re-invent Michigan.

"We're not island, we're one big team," he said. "Creating a culture that fosters entrepreneurship is elusive, but we can do it if we have an attitude of being positive and working together."

UnConference Rule #2: Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

The idea of an UnConference is that the participants make the agenda at the opening session, and then move freely about the conference as it progresses. Sheridan opened the floor for people to recommend topics of discussion and as people brought ideas forward they were placed on a schedule board on large sticky notes.

"The whole thing really came together in about four weeks," Nisbet said. "And it was really a group effort with people here at tech transfer and business people in the community coming together to make it happen."

That combination of University and community is vital for the future of the industry said Stephen Forrest, vice president for research at the University of Michigan.


The rules for the UnConference were posted throughout the conference hall

Angela Cesere |

"We have great push from the university for innovation, we're really trying to push students and faculty to go into business as much as possible," he said.

"But we need more pull from the community. This type of event is great because it brings those two together to form vital connections that benefit everyone."

UnConference Rule #3: Whenever it starts is the right time.

Once the schedule was created, people could chose which discussions sounded interesting and either went to sessions, wandered between sessions, or simply found an empty space to network and schmooze with university professors, government officials, and other attendees.

Initially, it seemed there was more time being spent at the food tables than in the open "sessions," as people began to understand the unique and different feel of the event.

Slowly but surely, people began to open up and joined breakout sessions that ranged from "What holes are there in state support of start-ups?" to "How do we keep young people in Michigan when they look for summer internships?"


Bill Brinkerhoff of the Office of Technology Transfer hands out pieces of paper to collect ideas for sessions.

Angela Cesere |

Walking around the room you could drift from a conversation about private helicopter taxis, to the finer points of the legality of raising venture capital for a new company.

"This was a great event. People here had a passion about the state of Michigan. They came and they stayed because they really wanted to share with each other and do something great," Laura Schrader, CEO of 3D Biomatrix, said during the closing session.

"The enthusiasm that everyone has here, if we could push this forward every day, it would be amazing."

UnConference Rule #4: It’s over when it’s over.

This may be the case, but throughout the night the event was referred to as the first unconference.

"This is just the first experiment," Sheridan said. "We want to keep this going and expand it moving forward."

Judging by the robust round of applause given at the end when people were asked whether they would attend a similar future event, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Ben Freed covers business for Reach him at 734-623-2528 or email him at Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2



Fri, Jun 22, 2012 : 2 p.m.

If only there was a newspaper where events like this could be announced in advance, so interested parties could attend...

Ron Granger

Fri, Jun 22, 2012 : 1:42 p.m.

"Walking around the room you could drift from a conversation about private helicopter taxis" Yes! I could not agree more. Michigan needs private helicopter taxis. I was just saying that the other day to my chum. We had just finished a smashing round of golf. He was feeling a bit morose about potential interactions with the lower class and traffic on the way back to the estate. I suggested he just lower the shades in the limo and that my driver would make him a good stiff drink. But then it struck me - like a diamond bullet - we must secure some state capital to develop the helicopter taxi market!

Kara H

Fri, Jun 22, 2012 : 3:06 p.m.

Thanks for the laugh Ron :-)

Wolf's Bane

Fri, Jun 22, 2012 : 12:30 p.m.

Cute. But this seems more an opportunity to advertise Rich Sheridan's company. No offense.

Ben Freed

Fri, Jun 22, 2012 : 2:13 p.m.

Rummy, Sheridan's company was only mentioned once in the article and hardly at all at the conference. The event was not focused around one person or company, it was intended as a "meeting of the minds" of the technology and innovation community. Ben