Seeding the Ground for Next-Gen Entrepreneurs

Igor Marfey has a lot going for him. MBA from Wayne State University, check. Promising career prospects fresh out of college, check. A steady paycheck as a financial analyst with Robert Bosch, check.
 
And he gave it all up to chase the entrepreneurial dream at a local start-up.
 
The 27-year-old is employee No. 1 at Larky. The Ann Arbor-based start-up is creating a mobile app that helps consumers maximize the discounts available to them through membership organizations, loyalty programs and coupons from local businesses. It's also one of the first start-ups participating in the newly revamped Adams Entrepreneur Fellowship Program, a local initiative that is taking a slow-food-style approach toward fostering entrepreneurship. 
 
The Adams Entrepreneur Fellowship Program places up-and-coming business people, i.e. recent college grads, with equally promising local start-ups. The year-long program also pairs the aspiring entrepreneurs with established business owners and investors who act as mentors. Those aspiring entrepreneurs, four in each class, also receive a $60,000 annual stipend.
 
"The program lets you mitigate the risk," Marfey says. "I had to quit my position with Bosch but having the year's salary helped make this possible."
 
Its not just about the money. The Adams Entrepreneur Fellowship Program also represents opportunity. Marfey says running his own business is a lifelong dream. Getting out of the mature automotive industry and into high-potential world of tech start-ups is just what he's looking for. The fellowship program bridges those two worlds.
 
"They have delivered on everything they promised me," Marfey says. "They paired me with a new start-up and organized so many activities. I have so many hands in so many things. You learn a lot about yourself. What you're good at. What you need to work on."
 
It's not a one-way street for the raw entrepreneur either. Larky is a little more than 1-year-old and has $650,000 in seed capital behind it. It is driven by its two co-founders with big dreams and not enough hours in the day to realize them quick enough. That team now has 50 percent more power since it took on Marfey.
 
"Because we are so early stage, we're only two guys," says Gregg Hammerman, co-founder of Larky. "Having a third guy helps up the resources tremendously."
 
Angels on entrepreneurial shoulders
 
The Adams Entrepreneur Fellowship Program is serviced through Automation Alley and headed up by Terry Cross. The Oakland County resident is one of the most successful angel investors in Metro Detroit with a number of successful ventures under his belt, including being one of the early investors in Google. When entrepreneurs and executives are looking for funding, Cross is one of the first people they want to sit down with.
 
Cross has been taking the time to sit down with young entrepreneurs in southeast Michigan for years now. The idea is to play a significant role in molding the next generation of business leaders that will reinvent and reinvigorate the region's economy. The Adams Entrepreneur Fellowship Program is part and parcel of making that happen.
 
The program is looking for young people in southeast Michigan (think the seven-county region) with at least a bachelors degree. That degree can be in business or engineering or just about any other discipline. The bottom line is the resume bullet points aren't as important as the personality behind them.
 
"We're not sticking to only one description," Cross says. "We're looking for the entrepreneurial soul. We look for entrepreneurial qualities like the fire in the belly."
 
Cross often recruits both the applicants and the start-up CEOs that end up employing them. For instance, Cross has been a mentor to Tyler Paxton for years. Paxton is a recent University of Michigan graduate who co-founded and serves as CEO of Are You A Human, a tech start-up that is reinventing CAPTCHA technology (the squiggly letters online that authenticate human interaction) with simple video game play. 
 
Are You A Human is now one of the portfolio firms at Detroit Venture Partners, a high-profile tenant at the M@dison Building in downtown Detroit and an employer of an Adams Entrepreneur Fellow. Cross' role in making that happen that shouldn't be underestimated.
 
"Having somebody like Terry that is familiar with the local entrepreneurial environment and beyond is extremely helpful," Paxton says. "Terry is kind of naturally plugged into the scene around here. He helped us have the right conversations with the right people."
 
Homegrown business success
 
Nilesh Joshi is not a young man without options. The 30-year-old recently graduated from Wayne State University with a Master's of Science in Chemistry and an idea to start his own company making bio-degradable chemicals. 
 
He knew he could go to another major metro area, score a high-paying job and work on his company in his spare time. That's not the path he wanted to travel. After going through the Blackstone LaunchPad program for Wayne State University students, he had $5,000 in seed capital from the program's Warrior Fund and the validation of his business idea. 
 
Not long after Joshi met Cross, which led to his application to the Adams Entrepreneur Fellowship Program. The idea of working for a start-up appealed to Joshi, but he wanted to run his own show. Cross decided to try something new and let Joshi work on his business full-time. That's when Joshi Biochemical launched out of TechTown last summer with one employee with a salary paid by the Adams Entrepreneur Fellowship Program.
 
"It provides you with a stipend for a year," Joshi says. "I get paid for a year to work on my start-up full-time. I can't describe how important that is."
 
Cross can. To him the finished product isn't a profitable Joshi Biochemical but an effective businessman in Joshi building Metro Detroit's economy for the next few decades.
 
"The kid is amazing," Cross says. "He really gets it. He doesn't wait for anyone to tell him what to do. If he has an issue he just picks up and does it. We're trying to come out with a product at the end of the day. I think we have been able to do that."

All photos by Doug Coombe except Terry Cross photo courtesy Terry Cross

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