Why we need to keep building Accelerate Michigan into an economic game changer

I went to the sixth annual Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition last week and couldn't help but think of one name, Rick Weddle.

For seven years, Rick Weddle served as the CEO of Research Triangle Park, one of world's most envied tech centers based near North Carolina’s major research universities. He gave a speech in TechTown in 2008, midway through his stint at Research Triangle Park. At the time, Michigan was in the midst of a decade-long economic malaise, and while the Great Recession hadn’t arrived yet, many people knew something big was coming.

At the time, many local leaders were interested replicating Research Triangle Park's new economy success here. The tech hub is the base of North Carolina’s new economy, creating thousands of jobs by leveraging the work of the state’s three research universities. Why couldn't Michigan do the same with the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University? Weddle believed it was possible, but we would have to work at it consistently for many years, decades even. He loved to point out that Research Triangle Park was an overnight success in the works since the 1950s.

"The real question is, 'Are you trying to just make an impact or are you trying to change the game?'" Weddle said in a Q&A after his Detroit speech. "Game changing strategies are probably a decade long."

He added, "What helped us is that private leadership said we're going to do the right thing even if it takes longer. If we had been driven solely by a governor or political leadership it would have zigged and zagged. Our game plan was steady at the helm. It was, 'OK, this is the right thing to do.' It's like eating oatmeal. You're going to do it. It's going to take a while but it’s going to show that it was a good idea. And they stuck to that."

Accelerate Michigan is major part of Michigan's new economy diet. The largest business plan competition in the state awards $1 million in prizes to promising startups each year with a $500,000 top prize. It draws the who’s who of Michigan’s top startups, investors, impact entrepreneurs, and the people who aspire to those positions here.

The New Economy Initiative and Metro Detroit's tech accelerators (TechTown, Ann Arbor SPARK, Macomb OU-INCubator, and Automation Alley) have funded Accelerate Michigan since its launch in 2010. The idea then is the same as it was now: providing the seed capital and resources to grow Michigan's new economy faster and more efficiently.

"We're living in a world where average isn’t an option anymore," William Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company, said during his keynote at this year’s Accelerate Michigan, describing how hyper competition is the rule of thumb in the 21st century economy.

This year's Accelerate Michigan in downtown Detroit was peppered with reminders of its quest to secure new funding for future competitions. From my point of view, after watching each and every one of these competition unfold, Accelerate Michigan is well worth the money.

Four years ago I traveled to Silicon Valley to cover a similar tech business plan competition called Founders Showcase. At the time I could tell it represented many of the things Michigan wanted its new economy to become: flashier, dominated by young people, and possessing a swagger befitting that region's place high atop the new economy totem pole.

I also noticed that what Accelerate Michigan's startups lacked in flash they more than made up for in substance. The 2011 winner of Accelerate Michigan, DeNovo Sciences, closed on a $2 million Series A last year. LLamasoft, which won one of the sub-category prizes, scored a $50 million investment from Goldman Sachs this year and now employs hundreds of people in downtown Ann Arbor. Most of the startups from the Founders Showcase circa-November 2011 competition aren't in business today. Last week Accelerate Michigan paraded its past winners on stage for a panel discussion to talk about how they have successfully raised millions in venture capital and built scalable businesses.

"I want people to understand that this is the big leagues," Lauren Bigelow, executive director of Accelerate Michigan, said in 2011. Not much has changed since then. Accelerate Michigan has established itself as one of the biggest and best business plan competitions for startups in the Midwest.

It took half a decade to build up Accelerate Michigan to this point. Michigan's economic leaders would be wise to heed the advice from Research Triangle Park's Weddle and keep building Accelerate into a game changing force over the next decade or two.

Disclaimer: Issue Media Group, Metromode's parent company, receives financial support from the New Economy Initiative.

Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.