Ann Arbor SPARK looks back on 20 years, celebrates local entrepreneurs at annual meeting

Ann Arbor SPARK celebrated 20 years of enhancing Washtenaw County's economic landscape at its Annual Meeting and Regional Economic Forum on April 30. Hundreds gathered for a luncheon at the EMU Student Center to applaud the organization, which advances the economy of the Ann Arbor region by attracting and retaining innovative businesses and people. 

In attendance were influential figures, including academic leaders, prominent business executives, and innovative entrepreneurs. There were also officials from state, federal, and local government, including former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

"I'm excited to be here today because [SPARK staff] continue to foster and promote innovation," Snyder said. "20 years of SPARK is just wonderful. It's created the whole ecosystem."

Synder was an original chair of SPARK, and was instrumental in creating the organization's business plans, raising funds, and hiring key staff. Today, he is the CEO of a young company called SensCy.

"What's really cool is that when we needed help, we went to SPARK and got it," Synder said. "I like to tell people that I started off as a parent, and now I'm a kid. I've gotten to see the full cycle of their success."

Snyder later discussed SPARK’s achievements in a panel discussion that also featured past SPARK board chairs Steven Forrest, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan; Tim Marshall, president and CEO of Bank of Ann Arbor; and Cynthia Wilbanks, senior advisor with the Peterson Rudgers Group and former University of Michigan vice president for government relations. 

Ahead of the panel, David Ruud, current chair of SPARK's board of directors, took the podium to share the organization's 2023 results. He said SPARK assisted 400 early-stage companies that employed 1,046 people full-time, and also nurtured 102 incubator tenants.

Nine awards were given at the meeting, recognizing outstanding contributions to the regional economy. Seven companies were spotlighted for their significant, longstanding regional contributions: KLA, Google, ZOLLER, Hyundai, Toyota Motor North America, May Mobility, and Thai Summit America. CultureWell took home honors as Entrepreneurial Services Company of the Year. At the end of the event, David Wilhoit, president and CEO of Wacker Chemical Corporation, was honored as Volunteer of the Year. 

Ruud said that as companies mature and attract existing companies to the region, SPARK's business development team provides a suite of services to help navigate the path forward – including site selection, funding, and regulatory guidance. 

"2023 was another strong year for this development in our region, with 23 growth projects across Washtenaw and Livingston County culminating in $208 million in new investments," he said. "These efforts have sparked economic growth with the creation and retention of nearly 1,000 jobs, reinforcing our commitment to fostering a thriving, sustainable business environment in the region."

When panelists were asked about their aspirations for the region, and SPARK's role in helping to realize them, Synder talked about his excitement for continued growth.

"The opportunity that SPARK has is to make sure it doesn't get caught up in just being really good at what it's already doing, but continually reinvent itself," he said. "... We can help lead the direction — and a much broader horizon – if we keep that open mind about where the future is going and helping define that future."

His fellow panelist Cynthia Wilbanks responded by addressing attendees, saying, "I don't really think it's a stretch to say that every person in this room is a SPARK-ler, right? You're generating, illuminating, trying to expand the reach and organization of an entity that means something to you."

She said SPARK and its partners have demonstrated "so much positive energy, even in the face of lots of issues that could have been more challenging, that would have collapsed other communities."

"The collaboration here, the cohesion around so many shared values, is a remarkable testament ... to what everybody in this room should take pride in," Wilbanks said. "Be a SPARK-ler. That will help everything in the future for this region." 

Jaishree Drepaul is a writer and editor in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at

Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.
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