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Ann Arbor Spark is a private-public partnership focused on advancing innovation-based economic development in Washtenaw County and beyond. The organization seeks to foster an entrepreneurial climate through its wide range of services, programs, funding opportunities, educational offerings, and expert assistance. In addition, SPARK has business incubators in downtown Ann Arbor and downtown Ypsilanti, and a wet lab incubator (lab space equipped with specialized plumbing and venting where researchers can run biological experiments and work with various chemicals and drugs) in Plymouth.
Skip Simms, the managing director of SPARK’s Business Acceleration Program and manager of the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund, explains, “SPARK is single focused on trying to accommodate the growth of high potential businesses that are hiring knowledge-based, new economy workers, and are diversifying the economy.” The organization aims to attract, retain, and develop high potential growth companies, “from start–ups to Fortune 500 types—companies that are certainly growing and have global markets,” he says.
Created in 2005, SPARK was absorbed by the Washtenaw Development Council through a merger in 2006. Simms thinks, “having a single organization focused on economic development, as opposed to two, three, or more, you avoid turf battles, you avoid politics, and it makes it so much easier on businesses to know there’s one place to go.”
Beyond the programs and services the organization offers directly, SPARK also serves as a conduit through which entrepreneurs and start–ups can find appropriate resources,
For example, Simms finds the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and the Small Business Technology Development Center (SBTDC) are particularly helpful resources. “Those organizations, and other support service organizations, provide the first line of education and tools to help entrepreneurs write business plans, identify markets, strategize, and determine whether or not they’ve got something worth pursuing,” he explains.
SPARK also practices “open source economic development,” which welcomes “anybody, anywhere, from any organization to tap us and use any of our tools, get advice, take our programs and recreate them for their local community. We have no pride of ownership,” Simms says, stressing the usefulness of communities learning from one another and sharing information and resources.
Simms tells, “In this area of open source economic development, we also have programs that are really statewide in nature.” For example, SPARK administers and manages the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund, a statewide investment fund for early-stage technology-based companies. “We don’t care if the company is located in Sault Sainte Marie or Flint, or wherever. The fund is available to any and all companies that fit our criteria,” he adds. Through collaborative effort with SmartZones around the state, which vet businesses for funding consideration, “in less than three years, we’ve made 35 investments in start–up companies,” Simms said.
A particularly unique feature of SPARK is its incorporation of a workforce development component, which is spearheaded by managing director of talent enhancement Amy Cell. According to Cell, although it is not always the case, “workforce development and economic development really should be attached at the hip.”
“Talent is a major component of economic development,” Cell explains. When companies are deciding where to locate, they “need to know that the type of people they are interested in are available. They need wage data because salaries are critical, and they need to find, recruit, and train these people. Being able to come to them with hard data about talent numbers—I become a part of the sales team, in a way,” she says.
Cell wears many different hats, sitting with Michigan Works! and Washtenaw Employee Training and Community Services twice a week, working with educational institutions to create training programs, coordinating career events, and connecting businesses with the workforce through a job posting service and weekly newsletter, among other responsibilities.
According to Cell, the free job posting board has been particularly successfully towards accomplishing SPARK’s goal of “connecting everyone who wants to find an innovative new economy job with the companies that need to hire them,” she says. She reports, “At least 70 percent of companies that post with us get qualified applicants, and about 30 percent hire candidates that they get through SPARK.”
Recent funding from the 21st Century Jobs Fund has enabled SPARK to offer a new Micro Loan Fund. Simms explains, “We recognized that there was a gap in funding, where it was missing for entrepreneurs.
When a company gets to that stage, when the private equity investor is not quite ready to invest (even the Pre-Seed Fund), they might not be right there at commercialization yet, or they need to do more product research or market research, and they need ten thousand, twenty, up to fifty thousand dollars to make that happen, this loan can help them achieve those last two or three milestones.”
SPARK reviews potential Micro Loan recipients in collaboration with SmartZones Automation Alley and the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative in Grand Rapids. “It’s a total collaborative effort, statewide,” Simms says. “I think it’s something that three or four years ago, this kind of collaboration, this kind of infrastructure, these resources were weak at best, if they even existed. We’ve made tremendous progress in this ecosystem, creating this entrepreneurial environment in the last couple of years,” he concludes.
Jennifer Eberbach is a freelance journalist and professional copywriter. You may contact her at 734-929-2964 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her online at www.jenthewriter.info.