With The Help Of Loyal Talent And New Programs, Detroit’s Startup Scene Accelerates

When Patti Glaza joined the tech industry over 20 years ago, she said there were maybe three venture capital firms in the entire state of Michigan.

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But in the past five years, she explained, Michigan’s focus on entrepreneurship and the importance of retaining youth has become commonplace across multiple cities. Glaza, now the managing director of seed venture fund Invest Detroit Ventures, has seen innovation efforts in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Flint, and Detroit. According to a recent report by EntryPoint, there has been a 54 percent increase in the number of Detroit-based venture-backed startups in the last four years.

Notably, Glaza claimed that startups founded in Michigan tend to stay in Michigan. Of the 110 Michigan-based companies her fund has invested in over eight years, only three companies have left.

“So we’ve had a pretty high success rate of keeping talent here,” she said. That’s attributed to a mix of factors: lower living costs than competing cities like San Francisco or Boston, supply chain and marketing talent, home of the automotive industry, and strong universities like University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

The desire to become part of the “Detroit comeback story” is also a huge recruiting component for young people, said Glaza.

It’s that burgeoning tech community in Detroit that convinced Amanda Lewan, the 28-year-old founder of Bamboo, a co-working space in downtown Detroit, to stay after graduating from college instead of going to Chicago or New York like some of her peers.

“Detroit has a small community, but it’s one that is growing,” she said. The state also isn’t short on technical talent. Michigan, according to the EntryPoint report, has 1,400 engineers per 100,000 residents—the highest density of engineers in the United States.

That growing community has also introduced competition. When Bamboo opened five years ago, Lewan said it was the only co-working space in downtown Detroit. Now they have more competition, but it’s exciting to “see that there is tons of opportunity in the city,” she said.

That opportunity is also being extended to immigrants through the Global Entrepreneur-in-Residence (Global EIR), a program universities are using to help retain foreign talent and support immigrant-founded startups.

Lewan said she often sees immigrants struggling to navigate the process of securing a visa. Global EIR, she said, could be a key resource that helps this community figure things out.

The program, which recently came to Detroit and also has a presence in Colorado, Boston and Anchorage, invites foreign entrepreneurs to work as mentors or adjunct professors at a school. In exchange, they get a cap-exempt H-1B visa that allows them to work on their own startups when they’re not working at the university. The program will help entrepreneurs stay in the country until they security a green card to stay longer. The Detroit chapter will work with University of Michigan’s Economic Growth Institute.

Steve Tobocman, the executive director of Global Detroit, is helping to launch Global EIR. He noted that they’ve spoken with over 45 entrepreneurs interested in the program. They’ll only pick about 7 or 8 entrepreneurs. Part of that process is talking to immigration lawyers to see if there is an easier way to let immigrant entrepreneurs stay in the country, he said.

“As we cast a national and international net to recruiting potential startups, it’s absolutely incumbent upon us that we look through all the different pathways and opportunities,” he said. “Again we want to land companies here, but we also want to do what’s in the best [interest] for the company.”

The program could be a pathway for Detroit to finally become aware of its own strengths in terms of immigrant talent, said Tobocman. He pointed to a statistic that shows how much untapped knowledge the city could have: since 2010, 63 percent of adult immigrants that have come to the state have college degrees.

Tobocman noted it’s a statistic that wouldn’t turn heads in a region like Seattle. However, in Michigan, where about 25 percent of the general population is college educated, the power and impact of this tech talent could create innovative ripples.

So, as Global EIR sets up in Detroit, Tobocman hopes that yet another partnership between foundations, universities and startups will uncover new strong spots in the Michigan economy. And with accelerators like TechStars and Backstage coming to Detroit, the Motor City’s talent pool of entrepreneurs, startup employees, and immigrants are now more validated than ever.

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