10/05/2012 05:36 pm ET

Michigan Recovery Aided By Entrepreneurship Competition

When Lauren Bigelow drove into downtown Detroit last year for a dinner event at the historic Madison building, she witnessed a surprising sight. As she passed through areas where the automotive industry decline and the economic recession hit hardest, and through neighborhoods where property values had fallen 80 percent over the course of three years, she looked up and saw a light on the horizon -- literally.

Less than a mile away from the Madison, the lights of Comerica Park were on, illuminating the stadium's all-brick exterior, the giant stone tigers with baseballs in their teeth, and all of downtown Detroit, weeks after the baseball season had ended.

Bigelow was driving in with the team organizing the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. The competition is one of many efforts to jumpstart the state's recovery, and it was the host of the VIP dinner party at the Madison that evening. Bigelow later learned that through mutual connections between supporters of the competition and the stadium owner, the lights had been turned on specifically for the event.

"It was really cool that two billionaires would help each other out like that for a business competition," Bigelow said. "It just showed the camaraderie and companionship we have built around revitalizing the city and the region."

Bigelow is the CEO of the Growth Capital Network and the executive director of the innovation competition, which awards students and later-stage entrepreneurial companies prizes of $25,000 and $500,000 respectively to catalyze their ideas and companies.

"We're looking for those companies for which the prize is going to be nitrous in their tank," Bigelow said. "We're hoping that the companies that get that infusion of cash will also get the visibility and the platform for more interest from investors."

The student portion of the competition is run around ideas, Bigelow said, and doesn't require submissions to have a concrete product yet. Students who have a great idea can submit it for consideration, get experience presenting in front of judges, and connect with other resources that will be valuable in the future.

"We really want them to find a love match," Bigelow said. "A mentor relationship, or maybe a potential investor who could help get an idea off the ground so when they graduate, they can start their business and have a network around them."

The second part of the competition is for later-stage entrepreneurial companies that already have a prototype or business plan. "The focus of the company competition is to get their pitches polished, get them more practice in front of venture capitalists, feedback on a national scale, and getting the companies networked in," Bigelow said.

By having both students and later-stage startups involved, the competition is able to help companies that are at various stages along the "food chain of entrepreneurship," as Bigelow calls it.

Bigelow started the competition after being approached by the heads of two local organizations focused on spurring growth in the area, the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan and Ann Arbor SPARK. Unbeknownst to the two organizations, a group called the Business Leaders for Michigan was trying to organize a similar competition at the same time.

"Both forces were trying to do the same thing," Bigelow recalled. "They decided to convene and partner and start the competition together."

It wasn't the last coalition forged via the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition.

Last year, the competition received a three-year grant from the State of Michigan's Economic Development Corporation to form a public-private partnership. The competition is now made up of a variety of different players in the community who are all working together to re-establish Michigan as a thriving, innovative area.

"It's a really unique blend of corporate foundations, Universities, incubators, accelerators and the State," Bigelow said. "[The mix] is really powerful."



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