Regional economic development organizations' links with Michigan's universities to play influential

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by Nathan Bomey | Michigan Business Review
Thursday June 04, 2009, 6:50 AM

Relationships between regional economic development organizations and Michigan's top universities are poised to play an increasingly influential role in helping the state's economy recover from its devastating economic crisis.

Central to Michigan's evolving economic development model is the tightening partnership between the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor SPARK.

U-M Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest, SPARK's new chairman, said in an interview at the Mackinac Policy Conference that one of his top priorities is spreading SPARK's model across the state. He was elected chairman of SPARK after founder and possible Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder opted not to seek reelection.

Forrest suggested that regional economic development organizations could drive economic activity throughout the state.

"We shouldn't be that concerned about it being in Ann Arbor," Forrest said. "It should be something that's good for the state and good for the region, because we're all in this together.

"So my ambition is to expand our concept of partnership and to really get these various organizations that historically might be separate to work together in a cooperative way." Whether a shift of power to organizations like SPARK and Southwest Michigan First could lessen the role of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. is unclear and likely dependent on the outcome of the 2010 elections. MEDC CEO Greg Main could not be reached for comment.

Forrest's comments came as Michigan business leaders repeatedly suggested on Mackinac Island that the state should adopt more cooperative economic initiatives and partnerships. The concept of increased economic development collaboration appears to be gaining momentum.

"We really are one Michigan," said Ron Kitchens, CEO of Southwest Michigan First. "We can talk about regions, and regions are important - they're part of who our culture is. But our problems are endemic to the entire state."

Jeff Mason, a former MEDC official and new executive director of the University Research Corridor, said Michigan's universities are the lynchpin to the state's success. But he suggested that the URC - a coalition among U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University - would have to collaborate with other organizations to jolt the economy.

"Economic development is a team sport. It's a collaboration amongst universities, government and the private sector," Mason said.

Michael Finney, SPARK's president and CEO, said his organization has been working closely with Wayne County economic development officials to explore new avenues for collaboration.

SPARK and Wayne County struck a deal in 2008 with Esperion Therapeutics founder and Lipitor co-discoverer Roger Newton to establish the Michigan Life Science Innovation Center in Plymouth Township. The biotech incubator has space for some 10 companies, including anchor tenant Esperion and U-M startup Lycera - drug discovery firms that have collectively attracted nearly $60 million in venture capital.

The Wayne County incubator is outside of SPARK's traditional Washtenaw County boundaries, but Finney said it was a natural fit.

"We don't really view any place in the state of Michigan as competition to us. We view the rest of the state as partners," Finney said. "If there are things that we can do or things that we're doing that will allow the rest of the state to improve at a more rapid pace, we think it's in our best interests to do it. We think as the rest of the state gets better, the Ann Arbor region gets better."

Forrest said SPARK's economic development initiatives - which include incubator space, business accelerator activity and talent enhancement programs - could serve as a model for the state.

"And it's not out of line with the other regions that economically function within the country. You go to the Bay Area or Massachusetts, there's a very tight relationship between academia, the business sector and the government," Forrest said.

Keith Cooley, CEO of Detroit-based economic development group NextEnergy, said Michigan's tendency to provoke regionalism is counterproductive. He suggested that the trend toward cooperation was overdue.

"It's about time," Cooley said. "We're one state."

Contact Nathan Bomey at (734) 302-1725 or nathanb@mbusinessreview.com.