10/28/2013 08:59 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2013

Michigan's University Research Corridor Entrepreneurs Bring a Spirit of Innovation to Revive Detroit

As the city of Detroit deals with the lengthy process of getting back on its feet financially, some observers are eager to write off the city that launched Motown, Joe Louis and some of history's most iconic automobiles.

But Detroit's financial problems aren't deterring students and alumni from the three universities that make up Michigan's University Research Corridor (URC) -- Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University -- from launching new businesses, tapping their talents and paving the way for Detroit's resurgence.

The three URC universities are investing in Detroit in ways that range from Wayne State's extensive police presence in Midtown Detroit that has cut crime 50 percent to Michigan State University's Community Music School for residents of all ages and the partnerships and understanding forged through the University of Michigan's Semester in Detroit program.

URC alumni also are making a difference. Consider the founders of, a website selling online school and office supplies. Brothers Andrew and Ryan Landau attended the University of Michigan and Michigan State, respectively, then left Michigan to take separate jobs with Google Inc. and IBM Corp. Inspired by the entrepreneurial movement taking hold in Detroit, they returned to Michigan and last year launched Chalkfly. The company now has $2 million in annual revenue and lets customers channel 5 percent of their purchase to a teacher of their choice to help reduce that teacher's out-of-pocket expenses.

It's a pattern of URC entrepreneurship repeated daily not just in Detroit but throughout Michigan and the nation. A 2013 survey of URC alumni revealed that they've started or acquired businesses at double the national average rate among college graduates since 1996 and have been 1.5 times as successful as the average U.S. business owner at keeping those start-ups and acquisitions alive in the past five years.

Survey responses from more than 40,000 alumni showed that more than 19 percent of the respondents have started a company, and many have created more than one. Half started or acquired a business in Michigan, while others did the same in the other 49 states and more than 100 countries.

A shining example is Dan Gilbert, who earned a bachelor's degree from Michigan State in East Lansing and a law degree from Wayne State in Detroit. The founder of the nation's largest online home lending company, Quicken Loans, Gilbert has invested $1 billion in Detroit over the past three years as he has bought and renovated commercial real estate, moved more than 8,000 Quicken employees downtown and encouraged other entrepreneurs such as the Landaus to come to Detroit and launch businesses. Just last month, the University of Michigan partnered with Gilbert's "Opportunity Detroit" initiative to host a summer reception for interns working in Detroit. More than 200 students attended, and the positive energy was palpable.

While the manufacturing sector in Detroit and across Michigan has shrunk, other types of businesses are moving in. Joe McClure, who holds a doctoral degree from Wayne State, recently quadrupled the space for his family pickle-making business by moving from the nearby suburb of Troy into a 20,000-square-foot former American Axle plant in Detroit. Not only is he producing more of McClure's signature spicy pickles, but he's partnering with Detroit snack food maker Better Made to produce pickle-flavored potato chips.

We know that, to compete globally, Michigan and Detroit need more entrepreneurs such as McClure and the Landaus. We've worked hard in recent years to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in our students and graduates by revamping the curriculum at our three universities. We now offer more than 40 programs and resources for students, alumni and faculty, including classes and degrees in entrepreneurship, business incubators, special advisers and gap funding to help start-ups get off the ground, and have seen a corresponding growth in the number of businesses being launched by our students and alumni.

We've also worked hard to create programs in Detroit that involve residents and make them part of the city's resurgence.

We support and applaud our students and alumni who are building Detroit's future. Instead of seeing a narrative of woe, our state's business and higher education leaders see a drive toward innovation and new opportunities. We believe Detroit has a bright future.

Lou Anna K. Simon is president of Michigan State University; Mary Sue Coleman is president of the University of Michigan; and M. Roy Wilson is president of Wayne State University. To learn more about the University Research Corridor, go to