I have long asked the question, “What is the responsibility of the University of Michigan to enhance the economy of the state?” I have observed that there is a tension between a research university’s responsibility to the world as the engine for discovery of new knowledge and the responsibility to create new industries that provide employment and economic growth.
When the economy of the state was strong, the question was not so urgent. With the decline of the auto companies as well as the general economy, however, it has become imperative that the university step up to the plate and help diversify the economy and restore the state to economic health. Because both the university and the state largely ignored the development of small, high-tech companies, our students all too often left for the high-tech meccas of Silicon Valley, Research Triangle, or the East Coast. A remarkable number of large, successful California companies were actually founded by Michigan graduates.
Thanks to the enthusiasm of students who want to become entrepreneurs, this is starting to change. “1000 Pitches,” a program of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering, hoped to generate 1,000 ideas for new and innovative products or companies. The students responded with over 3,300 pitches this year, and many of these ideas came from UMSI.
Some students at UMSI have formed an entrepreneurial group called SI Create. In fall 2011, they sponsored a campus-wide business model competition with $5,000 in prizes. Showing their entrepreneurial spirit and competence, the students raised the prize money themselves.
Perhaps most gratifying of all are the actual businesses our students are starting. One recent UMSI alum, John Wood, took my class in entrepreneurship and started a business. John was a defensive player on the Michigan football team in 2001. He knew that the critical skill of holding on to a football required strong hands, so he developed a business selling hand-strengthening programs and equipment. His customers now include many high school, college, and NFL teams. He contends that his is an information business because he sells a step-by-step program for improving hand strength; it is only secondarily an exercise equipment business website.
Michigan grads were among the first employees of the start-up Mobiata, an Ann Arbor-based company that produces mobile travel apps that track airline flight information and reserve hotel rooms. Expedia acquired the company in 2010.
Students are spearheading the effort to create new companies in Michigan. The rapidly changing world of information technology is one of the most fertile areas for creating new businesses. Like medicine and engineering, information technology accounts for many new and innovative companies.
The University of Michigan has long been an engine of economic growth, but students are now keenly interested in participating in this exciting effort. With job prospects for graduates somewhat bleak, some students have begun to create jobs for themselves and their fellow graduates. As more and more of our students and faculty succeed in building businesses, perhaps the area of entrepreneurship will become a legitimate focus of academic work.