from the chair
The work of economic development is not inherently exciting. The process of taking a concept from idea to market, expanding a business from 30 to 100 employees, or bringing a game-changing business to our region is often slow and imperceptible. It requires connecting all the dots, engaging everyone who can help, and never missing a detail. As a public-private-academic partnership, Ann Arbor SPARK has always fostered the collaborative and innovative culture necessary to this process. But never has that culture been more important to our region than during this past year.
COVID forced us all to adapt to unprecedented realities. We learned how to work and learn remotely, to use new tools, and to find new ways to connect with and support each other and those we serve. SPARK was no different. In collaboration with both long-standing and new partners, Ann Arbor SPARK nimbly adapted to help the small businesses hit so hard by the pandemic.
SPARK quickly expanded its traditional focus of helping build new business and serving established ones to also become the hub for multiple resources that kept every element of our local economy moving forward. Those resources included public funding that SPARK worked to secure for our region, as well as private funding sources that looked to SPARK to ensure it was thoughtfully distributed to do the most good. SPARK created the processes and marshalled the knowledge needed to provide critically needed funding to the restaurants, childcare providers, retailers and so many others critical to the fabric of our community. But SPARK also continued to do the work it’s always done to be sure that when COVID is finally behind us, no momentum has been lost.
Since its inception, part of SPARK’s mission has been to ensure the Ann Arbor region is “recognized for our academic, business, and community resources, and our collaborative culture.” I am proud of the leadership and staff at SPARK who proved this past year how important that culture is to the health of our local economy and how it positively impacts the people who make our community so special.
David N. Parsigian
CHAIR OF THE BOARD, ANN ARBOR SPARK
from the president and CEO
This past year presented the world with unprecedented challenges. It also provided opportunities to extend our reach to help wherever we could. For the team at SPARK, it meant doing what we always do — thinking entrepreneurially to
fill gaps in our regional economic ecosystem and saying, “Yes we can,” when asked to help. This year, this meant expanding our mission to help small local businesses most impacted by the effects of COVID-induced closures.
In 2020, SPARK re-doubled efforts to assess our partners’ needs and also identify those who could help. Two examples of this work immediately come to mind:
In this annual report, you will read the results of our efforts to support the region’s economic vitality, including delivering an expanded a2Tech360 virtually with more partners and a growing national audience, and examples of new initiatives developed in direct response to the pandemic. You will also read how our mission-centric work continued and delivered — against the odds — economic benefit to our region:
While it may have been an unprecedented year, what resulted was unparalleled collaboration amongst business and community leaders. We experienced a powerful reminder of the impact we can have by coming together to help one another. These are the real successes that are the foundation for our future growth, and the entire team at Ann Arbor SPARK is proud to be part of that work.
PRESIDENT AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER, ANN ARBOR SPARK
ADMINISTERING FUNDS TO THE
At the onset of COVID-19, Ann Arbor SPARK quickly mobilized and directly served businesses in Washtenaw and Livingston counties by working with partners to deploy critical funding.
MICHIGAN ANGEL FUND
Managed by Ann Arbor SPARK, MAF is the largest angel organization in Michigan. It invests in very early stage companies across the state that are not yet primed for venture and other sources of capital.
Part of what makes our services possible is funding provided by The Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti SmartZone LDFA, which provides capital to commercialize technologies developed locally. LDFA grows these companies in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, funded by the State of Michigan.
Last year, 48 interns were connected with 24 companies through SPARK’s internship program with EASTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY’S Digital Summer Clinic. The interns accelerated the startups’ marketing efforts while gaining valuable work experience. Since 2016, 84 percent of the student interns who went through the program remained in Michigan post-graduation.
Five UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN students were matched with four companies in SPARK’s new internship program for alternative reality, virtual reality, and experiential reality companies. The students experienced the complex dynamics of startup life and were exposed to the growth of AR/VR/XR opportunities in our region.
WASHTENAW COMMUNITY COLLEGE worked closely with SPARK to connect soon-to-be graduates with growing companies. WCC recruited students to Tech Trek’s Student Trek as well as Tech Homecoming. Also, with SPARK’s support, WCC was awarded a $10 million grant to create new robotics, automation, cybersecurity, and mobility programs.
Located on the third floor of SPARK Central, RXA — an advanced analytics and artificial intelligence company — established Weave Workforce LLC, its first studio company. RXA also expanded its team through the acquisition of Salt Lake City-based Yapa Group.
In 2020, SPARK Central graduate SkySpecs raised a $17 million Series C and fellow graduate AdAdapted raised a $2 million Series A round. Early-stage startup PocketNest, a current SPARK Central client, attracted $750,000 in capital.
Expanding on the footprint it established in the region in 2017, Wacker Chemical broke ground on its new $51 million research and product development center in Pittsfield Township. SPARK worked with the company, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and Pittsfield Township on the project.
In partnership with the Michigan Small Business Development Center, Ann Arbor SPARK provided $50,000 business accelerator grants to Bedestrian, Esperovax, and Orange Grove Bio to further development of innovative technologies in response to COVID.
Ann Arbor SPARK administered the Pittsfield Township Small Business Grant program, which awarded $50,000 to 20 businesses experiencing COVID-related financial hardship. The funding provided $2,500 grants to small businesses. SPARK convened a grant application review committee and managed the distribution of funding.
Ann Arbor SPARK, the City of Brighton, and the Brighton Downtown Development Authority teamed up to use a federal grant to create the Main Street Showcase, a new community mobile app that connects visitors and residents to the city’s restaurants, retailers, and service establishments.
Alex West, Bill Mayer, Charlotte Dillard, Liz Perpich, Komal Doshi, Marcia Gebarowski, Nick Joblonski, Anne Partington, Laura Berarducci, Joshua Thompson, Angela Flood, Lisa Bies, Phil Santer, Vicki Joling, Kayla Hill, Erin Wiley, Kirsten Lyman, Jennifer Olmstead, Margarita Hernandez, Kristine Nash-Wong, Carly Toaz, Mike Flanagan, Jenn Queen, Lindsay Thomas, Alison Beatty, Denise Murray, Skip Simms, Lauren DeVries
pivoting to serve
Our virtual a2Tech360 exceeded our expectations on every level. Delivering content online extended the reach of SPARK and our partners’ programming outside of the Ann Arbor region, including attendees from 37 states and 25 countries — the most diverse attendance in the program’s history. We were able to attract speakers from a broader geography and present their expertise to our audience. The SPARK team is looking forward to leveraging this experience for future a2Tech360 programs and continue to grow on this year’s success.
While continuing to offer our key educational programs such as Entrepreneur Boot Camp and SPARK.ed, Ann Arbor SPARK worked with private sector partners to deliver specific, on-demand expertise to the business community. In response to COVID-19, we adapted our programming to include two new educational tracks: SPARK.lead and SPARK.pivot. These new learning opportunities were focused on topics such as diversity and inclusion, fundraising in a pandemic, and legal considerations in the face of volatile economic conditions.