Putting Michigan back on the technology map

This post was written by Bruce Rogers, a contributor to Forbes.com.

This is part of a series of Forbes Insights Profiles of thought leaders who are changing the business landscape.

Lauren Bigelow is Working to Put Michigan Back on the Map for Technology Innovation

Lauren Bigelow. Credit: Forbes

Lauren Bigelow is the CEO of the Growth Capital Network (GCN) which does project management, evaluative and analytical work. But what she really does is help connect entrepreneurs and technology innovators to the capital and business advantages of starting up their business in Michigan. A main focus for Lauren is executing programs to connect entrepreneurial and growth companies with the capital to accelerate their vision. With this platform, Lauren runs the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, the Midwest Green Technology Entrepreneur Academy and the Midwest Midmarket Capital Survey. “We’re trying to address the full ecosystem behind new business start-ups, including venture funds,” says Bigelow.

Her efforts seem to be working: The Michigan University Research Corridor (URC) cites $2.0 billion in total R&D in 2011 (2012 numbers come out in November), of which $1.2 billion came from federal funding. For the past 3 years, Lauren’s programs have helped more than 300 small businesses take their first steps forward, awarding more than $3 million to several dozen start-ups. From pitching VC’s to finding incubator space to identifying board members, Lauren is highly involved in the Midwest’s (Detroit’s specifically) start-up and entrepreneurial community.

If that weren’t enough, Lauren sits on several investment committees, is on the Advisory Boards of the Erb Institute and Frankel Commercialization Fund at the Ross School of Business; the Energy Innovation Business Council and the New Enterprise Forum. She is also on the Great Lakes Leaders Council and the Michigan Advisory Council for the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“Three years ago, Mike Finney who was then serving as President and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK, a public-private partnership whose mission is to advance innovation-based economic development in the greater Ann Arbor, hosted a dinner with Dave Egner, the executive director of the New Economy Initiative in Detroit. They decided ‘we should have a competition’. They then came to me to use my extensive investor network to build the competition and a platform to showcase the entrepreneurial work coming out of the Michigan. Separately, Business Leaders for Michigan, the state’s corporate business roundtable, and the University Research Corridor from Michigan State, the University of Michigan and Wayne State, were considering the same thing.  We then got all four groups together with a private and state funded effort, MEDC’s 21st Century Jobs Fund and thus was born the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition,” says Bigelow.  Mike Finney is now the CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and works closely with his old colleague, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

Extensive background

Prior to the Growth Capital Network, Lauren was the North American Commercial Director for New Energy Finance, the leading independent provider of information and research to investors in clean energy and the carbon markets. Before its 2009 acquisition by Bloomberg, New Energy Finance had 11 offices globally, providing a range of newsletters, data, economic, policy and technology analysis and carbon price forecasting to senior decision makers. From 2004 – 2008, Lauren was the Managing Director of the Cleantech Group where she oversaw the firm’s technology and entrepreneur pipelines. Working directly with over two hundred early stage CEOs, more than $1.1 billion was raised by presenting companies. Lauren built fourteen of the Cleantech Forums and coordinated the outreach to incubators, universities, labs, angel organizations and investor groups. She worked closely with the Cleantech North American and China advisory boards to lead the next wave of investment opportunities and social responsibility in both continents.  Prior to joining Cleantech, Lauren was the Director of the IT Zone a networking and education organization that promoted the growth of the IT industry in Michigan.

However, Lauren’s road to Michigan’s uber networker and doyen of all things supporting business start-ups in Michigan was anything but conventional.  She received a BA from the University of Michigan, as well as an MA and PhD from Northwestern University.  “After college, I worked in finance for two years and then got head-hunted to work for the Gallo Winery.  I ended up in the wine business for several years, working in Washington DC and Hawaii.  I then took a break and followed my interests in Prehistoric Archeology specializing in early hominids. Our excavations overseas were like summer camp for adults – fun and engaging, except you worked 16 hours a day,” says Bigelow.  Her initial work was in Kenya, in an area where French and Kenyan scientists unearthed fossilized remains of mankind’s earliest known ancestor, the so-called “millennium man” that predates previous discoveries by more than 1.5 million years.  She also worked at sites in Alaska, the UK and Turkey. “It turned out the best lab facility I could use for my archeological specialty, zoological analysis, was in Ann Arbor,” says Bigelow.   Her time spent in archeology helped fulfill what she describes as her “love of discovery.”

Her time there led to her return to Michigan from her college days. “After spending a fair amount of time there, I then got a job at the IT Zone and ended up as the director of the program a year later.  In 2004 I had the opportunity to be the first employee of the Cleantech Venture Network (now Cleantech Group).  I was really proud of the work that we did in those four years.  We literally trademarked the word ‘cleantech’, created a platform for the investors and a community for the companies to engage,” Bigelow continued.

“With the competition, we’re trying to be a shot of nitrous to get the companies to the next step,” says Bigelow of the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition program.  “We introduce additional capital flow to Michigan and it’s a great way to get ex-pats back to the state,” Bigelow continues.   To date competition winners have succeeded in raising over $19.9 million in new funding as a result of their exposure to the venture capital community through the competition.

As Governor Snyder writes in the Michigan Venture Capital Association annual report, “Michigan is once again on the radar of global innovators as a place where high-tech businesses can thrive. The Michigan Venture Capital Association and its members deserve much credit for our state’s newfound reputation. Thanks to some of the best talent in the world and an ecosystem that promotes success, companies of all sizes, but especially early to mid-stage ventures, are staking claim in Michigan. Investors recognize these assets are unique to Michigan. They are eager to help businesses grow in the state.”

Thanks in no small part to Lauren Bigelow.

Bruce H. Rogers is the co-author of the recently published book Profitable Brilliance: How Professional Service Firms Become Thought Leaders now available on Amazon http://amzn.to/OETmMz

Tags: Business,Business Management,Entrepreneurship,Technology