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Michigan’s Growing Startup Culture and Venture Capital Activity on the Rise

By Audrey LaForest 

All businesses had to start somewhere. For some entrepreneurs, those first ideas were last-minute light bulbs that went off in their heads and came to life on bar napkins, the backs of hands or in a dream. No matter how the idea came to fruition, it more than likely required investments for those businesses to sprout from risky ideas to established companies.

In Michigan, venture capital activity is on the rise, creating an important opportunity for investors and startups, especially in areas of automotive IT and next-generation mobility. In the third quarter of 2016, the state saw $118.8 million invested in 18 deals, ranking Michigan 17th nationally, according to an October report by the National Venture Capital Association and PitchBook, a venture capital database.

Nationally, the number of venture capital firms has decreased by 14 percent, according to the Michigan Venture Capital Association’s 2016 annual report. In Michigan, that number has grown by 257 percent over the last 15 years.

“A significant part of Michigan’s growth has been due to the amount of investment venture capitalists can attract from outside the state,” said Maureen Miller Brosnan, executive director of the Michigan Venture Capital Association.

Every dollar invested in a startup by a Michigan venture capital firm, Brosnan said, attracts an additional $4.31 of investment from outside the state.


“There’s a real possibility that startups and venture capital can be a really key industry in Michigan. It’s consistently growing right now, and it’s attracting some world-class talent,” said Ted Serbinski, managing director of Techstars Mobility, a Detroit-based startup accelerator program focused on next-generation mobility technologies.

Techstars has invested in 22 companies since it was launched here in 2015. Among its investments is ride-share startup SPLT, which relocated from New York City to Detroit last year and is providing a sustainable solution to congested weekday commutes by offering companies a way for their employees to share the ride to work; and Lunar, another startup that relocated from NYC to Detroit that is offering a new kind of smartphone with no monthly bills.

At Fontinalis Partners, a Detroit-based venture capital  firm founded in 2009, co-founder and partner Chris Thomas said Michigan’s combination of people, intelligence and history are three factors impacting the state’s steady growth in venture capital and startups.

“We have a strong venture capital community. We have a strong and growing entrepreneurial community, and we have fantastic people,” Thomas said. “We have some of the best engineers in the world. We have some of the best workers in the world, and we have this amazing opportunity to give them the chance through funding from companies like ours to go out and develop and achieve their dreams.”

Fontinalis, which is strictly focused on investing in companies that provide solutions for next-generation mobility, has funded big names like Lyft and continues to see opportunity in Detroit’s automotive and mobility ecosystems. The firm also has investments in Karamba Security, a startup that is protecting connected cars from cyberattacks.

“We have something very special to offer here because — for better or for worse — Detroit is the largest transportation technology cluster in the world … larger than Silicon Valley,” Thomas said.


As venture capital investments continue to grow, startups are becoming the state’s most promising job creators.

“Startup companies and the venture capitalists that invest in them to fuel their growth bring increased employment of highly educated workers, utilize service providers like attorneys and accountants, and lease office space to support operations,” said Tony Grover, managing director at RPM Ventures, a seed and early-stage venture firm founded in 2000 with offices in Ann Arbor and Silicon Valley.

The company has invested in startups like Automatic, a company that is connecting cars on the road to the internet via an app and plug-in car adapter that can diagnose “check engine” codes, give driving feedback and track mileage.

Startups may begin as small, high-risk endeavors, but “their goal is to build industry-defining businesses,” Grover added.

“Companies like Intel, Apple, Amazon and Facebook all started with a dream of a founder that was then backed by venture capital investment to lead an industry,” he said. “Each of these companies now employs tens of thousands of employees, providing direct and indirect economic benefits to the cities and states in which they reside.”

Audrey LaForest is a metro Detroit freelance writer.