At EntryPoint, we use research and data on the entrepreneurial community to understand how to better support it. On The Cackle, our weekly livestream chats, we’ve had the incredible opportunity to discuss the most relevant and pressing business topics with small business leaders, startup innovators, and entrepreneurs. EntryPoint’s founder and managing director’s recent conversation with Tim Schigel, managing partner at Refinery Ventures, centered around boomerang talent and why it is critical to the Midwest to become a major player in the startup community. Tim felt that boomerang talent, or talent that is from the Midwest and has worked at successful startups on the coasts, has valuable experience at companies that have scaled. He emphasized that we need to attract that experienced high-tech talent back to the Midwest in order to be competitive in building a density of scaleups. He also had some thoughts about the role of Midwest universities, economic developers, and venture capitalists in attracting that talent back. See the clip:
Check out this full episode of The Cackle here.
To continue this discussion, we decided to ask entrepreneurial experts from across the Midwest for their perspective on attracting experienced high-tech talent (boomerang talent) back to the Midwest and the impact larger scale outreach initiatives with this goal could have on the Midwest’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Kelly B. Sexton, Ph.D.
Associate Vice President for Research, Technology Transfer and Innovation Partnerships, Office of Technology Transfer, University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
U-M Tech Transfer, along with the university, entrepreneurs, and various community partners have together created a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem in Ann Arbor. Learn more about the resources available within the University, from our partners outside of U-M Tech Transfer, within greater Ann Arbor, the state of Michigan, and beyond. As a key academic partner in the Midwest region, EntryPoint reached out to understand their approach to attract boomerang talent and encourage top high-tech talent to remain in the region.
When I arrived at the University of Michigan in early 2018, I spent my first few weeks getting to know my new colleagues in the Office of Technology Transfer. One of my most memorable conversations was with Peter Falzon. Peter is a U-M alum and Michigan native who had spent the past 25 years leading and managing life science companies and teams in the Bay Area. Having only recently returned to Michigan, he was struck by the juxtaposition between the quality of the research discoveries being generated at U-M and the dearth of early stage capital available to move these discoveries into the marketplace. Peter was working with our office as a Mentor-in-Resident, or MIR. Our MIRs are typically people like Peter–individuals with deep technical backgrounds along with business and entrepreneurial experience. Their role is to work with U-M inventors to help support them on the path to commercialization, often leading to the formation of new startup companies.
Our MIR positions are made possible because of a statewide program–the Technology Technology Transfer Talent Network, or T3N. T3N is a partnership between the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) Entrepreneurial & Innovation initiative and universities in our state. This statewide university network is designed to bring entrepreneurial and business talent to our technology transfer offices to support the commercialization of university research discoveries. This program allows us to recruit high-tech talent from across our region, And, importantly, to attract “boomerang talent”. On occasion, the MIRs will identify a compelling U-M startup company where things just “click” and they end up joining the company, often at a “C” level position. When this happens, we may lose the MIR, but we gain an entrepreneur.
A few months after my meeting with Peter, I learned that he would be leaving our team, but would still remain part of the broader “tech transfer family”. Peter was leaving to head up a U-M startup company, Ripple Science. Today, Ripple provides a HIPAA compliant high security cloud platform that enables seamless coordination of all aspects of research participant management for clinical, translational, and social science studies. Thanks in large part to Peter’s efforts, Ripple Science has raised $7.1M in angel and venture capital, and has created 20 jobs in Michigan. Their platform is being used to support ongoing COVID clinical trials.
The T3N network is critical in order for our region to be able to realize all of the economic benefits arising from the new technologies generated by the research engine at the University of Michigan and the partner universities around our state. By connecting business and entrepreneurial talent directly with tech transfer offices and faculty inventors, we are not only guiding great technologies towards a startup launch–we are also creating much needed “connective tissue” between our universities and our state’s growing entrepreneurial and investment communities. As recognition of its impact, the T3N program was recently selected for an Excellence in Economic Development Award from the International Economic Development Council.
The University of Michigan just closed a record-breaking year for technology transfer, with 31 new startup companies launched and 268 new licenses and options executed. This success is due to many factors, most notably the quality of U-M research and the drive and passion of our community of innovators. I also have no doubt that these record achievements would not have been possible without the partnership with the MEDC that enables the T3N program. Building on the success of the T3N program, we are now working to create and build a new source of early stage capital to accelerate the success of U-M tech-based startups: the Accelerate Blue Fund.
What does the future hold for Michigan’s economic recovery following the pandemic? Part of the answer certainly lies in the ability of our region to capitalize on the impact of the innovations being created in the laboratories at our state’s great universities. Our success in this endeavor is in turn dependent on our ability to attract, grow, and retain entrepreneurial talent. The internationally recognized T3N program is now the gold standard model for building a network of talent to foster high quality university startup companies. With Ann Arbor being one of a handful of cities that is frequently mentioned as being poised to become “the next Silicon Valley”, our talent strategy has never been more important.
President & CEO, TechPoint
TechPoint, an Indianapolis-based, tech industry-led nonprofit focused on growing and strengthening the region’s tech ecosystem, has been building and operating talent solutions for tech employers for the past eight years, so EntryPoint reached out to hear some insights and lessons learned.
Xtern was the first summer internship program built by TechPoint. The program includes a paid job with one of 60-70 employers, free housing downtown, and an amazing schedule of social and professional development experiences, the program has now placed over 800 students into internships in 140+ companies. More than 2,000 students from 222 universities and 43 home states applied to be in the summer 2021 Xtern class.
We’ve learned a lot from this program, but one insight was just how low the awareness level is by college students — even those going to school nearby — about the cities, tech communities, and job opportunities outside of a handful of legacy coastal hubs. Indy’s tech community experienced more than $7B in acquisitions over a 10-year time period, acquisitions that brought top tier tech employers like Salesforce (which has grown to 2,000 employees and the HQ of their Marketing Cloud) as well as a surge in angel investors and new startups.
But the awareness about this growth and opportunity lags reality. Only 25% of in-coming Xterns said before the program they were considering a career in Indianapolis after graduation. After the program, 76% of those offered a job accepted.
To attract experienced out-of-state talent, we launched what we call our Red Carpet Experience (RCE) in 2018, focused only on what Tim Schigel of Refinery Ventures would call “Special Forces” level people with a pre-existing tie to Indiana and interest in returning to the state. We we opened the application window, TechPoint hoped to gather 200 applicants to our RCE weekend from which we would successfully attract 25 people to high-tech jobs here by December 31, 2020. We ended up with nearly 400 applicants interested in returning to Indiana and welcomed 30 of them for the RCE weekend.
During RCE weekend, we essentially re-introduce “boomerang talent” to the city. We pair them with tech and city champions for a private look at the area, covering personal, professional, and play opportunities and host them in an array of activities that highlight the Indianapolis region and provide an inside look at personal and professional life.
Before their RCE weekend, only 4% of our participants had a very positive impression of Indy, afterwards, 80% had a very positive impression. Before RCE, only 16% had a positive impression of the Indianapolis tech community. Afterwards, 100% had a positive impression. Before RCE, only 28% were likely to move to Indianapolis in the next year. Afterwards, 96% were likely to relocate.
We’re proud of how we’ve programmatically moved the needle on perception and propensity to move for high-tech talent, but the point here is that the Midwest is still starting from a material deficit in public perception that will need to be addressed in order to fully compete in the race to build the next generation of great tech and entrepreneurship hubs.
Executive Director, TCNewTech
Traverse City, Michigan
TCNewTech is a community of tech enthusiasts, businesses, entrepreneurs, and Michigan policy makers building a culture of innovation, economic growth, and opportunity for local talent in the Traverse City Region. EntryPoint reached out to hear their thoughts on the impact boomerang talent can have on growing the Midwest economy.
Many rural areas are experiencing some form of “brain drain,” losing its best and brightest because of insufficient opportunities for family-sustaining careers. Although the Northwestern Lower Peninsula region of Michigan has experienced a growing population over the past ten years, we have been losing people of key working age (35-49-year-olds). From 2010-2017 we saw a local 10% decline in this population. We know this will translate to a loss of the under 18 population, which puts stress on the local school community and forecasts a potential workforce shortage. What’s more, during the same time period the county grew the 20-34-year-old residents by 13% and saw a 24% increase in the 65 and older population.
Our region’s economy has traditionally relied heavily upon tourism which creates seasonal, low-paying jobs and a lack of affordable housing. TCNewTech along with other local stakeholders has worked to bring attention to the area as a potential tech hub to ensure a more diversified economy that will create more family-sustaining job opportunities to retain and attract a competitive workforce. Both young and old are attracted to the recreational and quality of life amenities that our region boasts, however, if we fail to address the lack of growth in the area of high-skilled jobs, we will continue to lose an important workforce demographic.
To encourage our region’s skilled and educated workers to return home, TCNewTech hosts an annual Thanksgiving weekend event for “boomerang talent” returning to Traverse City for the holidays to introduce them to local employers and explore what relocation to our corner of the Mitten State could look like. We target boomerang talent such as alumni from our local high schools, Midwest colleges, and summer residents that all have an affinity for the area. We strive to highlight the amazing recreation and natural beauty of our region while showcasing it’s strong high-tech ecosystem with family-sustaining jobs.
Principal, Ohio Innovation Fund
The Ohio Innovation Fund (OIF) takes a new perspective on investing between the coasts which we call the “Midwest Model.” The Midwest Model takes the best of Silicon Valley principles and applies them to companies with advantages inherent to the Midwest creating a unique mix of high growth, visionary, capital efficient, globally competitive, gritty companies. EntryPoint wanted to know their take on finding the best talent and learn more about the “Midwest Model.”
If an area has world-class companies, it can attract world-class talent. When the Ohio Innovation Fund was founded in 2016, we knew that the Midwest faced a funding gap (a lack of traditional Series A capital), but we didn’t know the extent of the experience gap. We quickly realized that rather than focus solely on the venture capital challenges of scaling the portfolio and providing top-tier returns, we’d need to work on building the ecosystem by training the first generation of “home grown” venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in the region. OIF does this by leveraging top talent from research and educational institutions and driving progress by working on everything from product roadmaps to hiring decisions to strategic partner negotiations with our founders.
But great ecosystems need to build sustainable talent, and we’ve begun to see this with the return of the “boomerang talent” Tim references. At RXQ Compounding, an FDA 503B compounding facility in Albany, OH, Andy Corbin joined the team as COO & President. Andy has always lived in Ohio, but never before worked here, taking commuting roles at hypergrowth startups outside the region like WebMD and LifeLock. At DatAnchor, a cybersecurity company redefining the way we view data security, Jake Cleveland has joined as a key advisor. Jake’s a former exec at giant EMC, which was acquired by Dell for $67 billion. At Stirling Ultracold, an Athens, OH advanced manufacturing company developing the “cold chain” (ultra-relevant for today’s COVID-19 world), Dusty Tenney joined as CEO. Dusty’s former President of the Life Sciences Division at Boston-based Brooks Automation, where he grew that division from $65 to over $350 million in revenue.
In the case of startups in the Midwest, “If you build it, they will come” rings true when “it” is world-class companies, and “they” is world-class talent.
Director, ChicagoNEXT of World Business Chicago
ChicagoNext is World Business Chicago’s initiative that drives inclusive growth and opportunity for Chicago’s technology economy and innovation ecosystem. EntryPoint reached out to see why they prioritize talent retention in their overall talent strategy for Chicago.
In addition to a focus on attracting boomerang talent, ChicagoNEXT leverages existing partnerships as an economic development organization working with universities on attracting and retaining top talent. We’ve operated ThinkChicago for almost 10 years and it’s been our long-time effort to support tech companies to scale.
College students and job recruiters meeting in-person for networking has become another tradition that shifted to virtual platforms due to coronavirus. While we started the year with big recruitment plans, we immediately pivoted to ensure we filled that gap through ThinkChicago.
Led by ChicagoNEXT, the tech and innovation initiative for the City of Chicago’s economic development organization, World Business Chicago – ThinkChicago is our national STEM talent attraction and retention program for local tech companies. Launched in 2011 in partnership with the University of Illinois System, ThinkChicago leads a series of events to connect top-tier university talent with innovative companies who are ready to scale. Our annual flagship events, aligned with the Lollapalooza music festival and Chicago Ideas Week, usually opens with welcome remarks by the city’s mayor, followed by feature talks by industry leaders and startup founders, along with spotlights of career opportunities with local companies who are hiring for both technical and non-technical roles.
For the past nine years, our ThinkChicago events are designed to be immersive, fun, and a direct pathway to access a cohort of some of the most innovative companies in the Midwest. For companies, it’s an effective way to convince university students to live and work in the Midwest (via Chicago) after graduation – giving them a platform to increase their recruitment pipeline. As the long-time program pivoted to address the unique challenges caused by COVID-19, our virtual ThinkChicago events have connected 1000+ top-tier university students (a majority of engineering majors) with 40+ companies in 2020 alone. For the current fall semester, our plans include virtual “summits” with university partners to raise awareness of Chicago’s thriving tech and innovation ecosystem in partnership with engineering and business colleges and university entrepreneurship centers.
Mayor Lightfoot says it best: “Chicago has always been a leader of the digital age, serving as a global powerhouse for technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. With ThinkChicago, we will be able to continue this leadership and invest in these lucrative fields by engaging our students with tech career opportunities right here at home.”
As we continue to navigate these challenging times, ongoing efforts like ThinkChicago are critical for both the Chicago and Midwest tech ecosystems to thrive.
EntryPoint is a research institution that aims to promote entrepreneurship across the Midwest. The organization believes that the best research takes a holistic approach to data acquisition and analysis, and as such, seeks to build meaningful partnerships with corporations, community foundations, entrepreneurial support organizations, and other groups. Working in tandem with these partners, EntryPoint develops comprehensive research reports that deliver insights on strengths and challenges facing companies, communities, and the broader region. Research findings are used to design and implement effective programs to promote entrepreneurship by fostering an inclusive culture, expanding networks, and facilitating education and advocacy. EntryPoint is a registered 501(c)(3) organization.