In this episode, host Paul Krutko interviews SPARK board member Patti Glaza from Invest Detroit. Glaza dives into the transformative journey of Ann Arbor’s startup landscape, revealing how a once sparse ecosystem has burgeoned into a thriving hub of innovation, teeming with startups and flush with investment opportunities. Glaza also talks about the challenges in Michigan’s startup scene, particularly in talent acquisition and failure management.
Paul Krutko: Welcome to Ann Arbor SPARK’s CEO Podcast, Conversations on Economic Opportunity. My name’s Paul Krutko and I’m the president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK. Welcome to a series of conversations with key leaders from those sectors.
Joining me today is Patti Glaza. Patti has been with Invest Detroit since 2014, bringing with her an impressive three decades of tech sector experience. At Invest Detroit, she focuses on the development of early-stage and high-growth companies, providing them with both guidance and investment capital. She’s also been actively involved in initiatives to ensure that women and minority entrepreneurs receive the mentorship they need.
Before her role at Invest Detroit, Patti managed the Michigan office for Arsenal Venture Partners and began her professional journey at Accenture overseeing teams of Fortune 500 companies. She later ventured into startups, taking executive roles in healthcare, IT nanotechnology, and environmental tech sectors. On the board side, we’re really pleased that Patti has joined the Ann Arbor SPARK board, but she’s also on the Michigan Venture Capital Association, Tech Town Detroit, and University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships boards.
Thanks for taking time out today, Patti. It’s a busy time of the year and we really appreciate you doing this.
Given your extensive background in the tech sector, how have you seen the start-up ecosystem in Ann Arbor evolve over the years?
Patti Glaza: Yeah, absolutely, thank you for having me. Appreciate being here. And not to date myself, but I wrote the first business plan for the Ann Arbor IT Zone back in 1999, which is an organization that I believe later merged with SPARK. So I was working as an intern analyst for Avalon Investments, which was one of the few venture firms in the city at the time. So a few evolutions do stand out to me from over the past 25 years.
The sheer density of startups in the city now is just incredible. You can’t walk to any coffee shop without bumping into three or four entrepreneurs or investors, and I believe this is a function of the support that they’re getting in the ecosystem and the increased availability of capital to early-stage companies. SPARK and the University of Michigan have been instrumental in providing mentorship, technical assistance, formation capital to entrepreneurs, and having programs that help founders navigate company formation has led to so many new enterprises here in the region.
We now even have the Michigan Founders Fund, an initiative launched by Dug Song for Founders to support founders, and we have enough founders for this type of organization to thrive. I think the experience level of the venture funds in the city have also matured significantly, providing a real valuable asset to the community from investors like Jan Garfinkle at Arboretum, who served as the chair to the National Venture Capital Association, we’ve got folks like Jim Adox at Venture Investors, who I believe was an intern back in the mid-nineties. We got Sonali [Vijayavargiya] at Augment Ventures, Josh Beebe at MK Capital. There are so many folks, right? All longtime players in the city that contributed their time to helping entrepreneurs here.
And I don’t think we would be remiss to, or we shouldn’t leave out, having a private fund-to-fund. Renaissance Venture Capital Fund has been actively investing in Michigan-based funds, which really helps, again, add to the capital here.
So 20, 25 years ago, practically everyone was new to the game — founders, investors both. Now we have entrepreneurs that are on their second or third companies, investors on their fourth, fifth, sixth funds. We aren’t having to recreate the wheel.
And then that support infrastructure that I was talking about, the programs that SPARK offers, and the University of Michigan programs to their students and professors. It’s really created quite a different experience, I think, to be a founder today.
Paul: Yeah, it speaks to, I mean, I’ve done a podcast with her, and I’ve had done a lot of conversations with her — I’m speaking about Mary Sue Coleman— when she had the idea to create us, it was, “why doesn’t the area around Ann Arbor look like what you would find around Stanford?” And I think where we are some 20 years later is we can speak to that. We have evolved to that degree, that the entrepreneurial community is palpable, and that’s what you described. You can physically see it in addition to all the work we’ve done.
So you’ve talked about where we’ve been and where we’ve come. Maybe you could share your viewpoint on what some of the unique challenges and opportunities are that come with the work to support early-stage high-growth companies in southeast Michigan.
Patti: Yeah, this, I think most people would agree, is one of our biggest challenges is still talent. We have no shortage of amazing inventors, but we don’t yet have that deep bench of operational talent that our founders need. It’s improving, but we aren’t like the Bay Area where you can sneeze and hit a highly experienced startup, CXO of marketing, sales, revenue, operation, finance, et cetera. It just often takes too much time, money, and misses to find the right people for our companies.
I would also throw out that I don’t think our ecosystem here helps founders fail fast enough. We’ll let entrepreneurs spend years scraping by in hopes of salvaging a minor win. I would like to see more programs aimed at helping entrepreneurs realize when is it time to stop, reboot, and work on the next idea? So I think we have more of a conservative nature here in the region and thinking about, hey, fail fast and let’s move on and find the next thing. I think it would improve the culture here a bit.
Paul: I think that’s a good point. Yeah. I guess what I would say is that it also depends upon the technology. I mean, one of the things that we’ve experienced is in the life sciences, the time to get to where you need to get to is longer, and for us, having the patience with therapeutics or in that area, but I agree with you and in other technologies, failing fast and moving on is probably a very appropriate thing we need to be considering.
Patti: Well, I think you raise a great point though. We do have a unique capacity here, I think in the region, in the fact that we do have more patient capital for early stage, and whether it’s deep tech, life science, or even just the time it takes for our startups to hit that scaling phase. But I do agree with you having that patient capital is essential.
Paul: So I think the points you’re making though is that given the expertise that we have in terms of mentoring and helping companies do that assessment, helping them see the reality of their situation sooner is helpful. But one of my staff members always talks to me about, well, we don’t want to step on people’s dreams, but it’s a hard road.
So let’s change gears a little because there’ve been many things that you’ve been involved in and maybe speak a little bit about some of the notable achievements or innovations from some of the startups you work on. And the ones I have on my list are Genomenon, Micro-LAM, and Ripple Science. So talk about a little bit what some of those successes have been.
Patti: Yeah, so one failure, I’ve never been able to get Genomenon to change their name, because it really is hard to pronounce.
So first I do want to note that all three of those companies are university spinouts. So Genomenon and Ripple come from the University of Michigan, and Micro-LAM from Western Michigan University. So I think it is important to note how important universities are to our entrepreneurial ecosystem in the state. And it has, I want to say it’s been an honor working with each of these companies pretty much since the beginning, and no road and why all of these companies are thriving right now. No road is smooth and easygoing, right? They’ve all dealt with some ups and downs, but the passion and commitment that each of these teams have had and shown has really been inspiring to me. So when I think about some of the key highlights, Genomenon right now has been growing fast. They acquired a company in Bosnia. They’re racing to curate the whole genome to help clinicians diagnose their patients faster and help pharma deliver precision medicine to treat patients. And that ability to integrate AI and think about all the research that’s being done in the world today, their system is cataloging that research and using AI to deliver that value back to the community of folks that are trying to help. So that team has completely taken off.
Micro-LAM, it’s an advanced manufacturing tooling and production company. Now they’ve acquired two companies, one globally, in the UK, and one in New Hampshire. So they’ve truly become a global company, and right now they’re actually supplying some of the world’s largest communication companies with critical equipment. So you think about their clientele, large communications companies, defense companies, thinking about our cell phones and the next generation of equipment. That’s a great team led by a phenomenal founder who is one of the few founders that actually survived from a postdoc PhD candidate at Western Michigan to actually becoming a founder and then growing his company as far as he has. And that’s a huge success.
And of course, Ripple has been a great story. One of the professors at University of Michigan, Nester Lopez-Duran, being able to help researchers and clinical study teams improve patient attraction and retention. Clinical trials are so expensive these days and being able to help attract and retain patients to get through those trials are saving tons of dollars in the clinical process.
Paul: Those are all great examples. You’ve been really involved in trying to ensure that women and minority entrepreneurs are getting the mentorship that they need. Can you talk a little bit about your efforts in that area and how that’s going?
Patti: Yeah, so anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been a long-time passionate supporter of equalizing the playing field for underrepresented founders. And I think this crosses a broad spectrum. We often think about gender and race, and now we’re thinking about sexual orientation, religion, age, our veterans, immigrant status, socioeconomic status. There are lots of things to look at, but the core is, do people have access to capital? Do they know where it is? Are we trying to be active in the communities and does my team reflect the communities that we’re trying to provide access to? So I do, from 25 years ago, the entrepreneurial system has completely shifted, I think, in the region. We have so many more women and minorities and diverse founders of all kinds. And I think that’s a huge success because I believe there are not just ID Ventures, but many of the early-stage funds, including SPARK, are thinking intentionally about providing this access to capital.
Paul: One of the things that we also kind of focused on, in our work, is we want to work with early-stage companies at the very beginning, that they think about diversifying their workforce as well. You talked about how the ecosystem evolves and you have serial entrepreneurs or people that work in startups who then, maybe at a junior level, and now they’re moving into more of a senior level. And so what we’ve been trying to do is communicate that if you think about diversifying your workforce when you’re five employees, you’re going to have a diverse workforce when you’re a hundred or 150. So it’s not only just the diversity in the founders themselves, but getting this philosophy that the diverse workforce is really important, not only just because it is something we should all try to do, but because it makes you more competitive as a company later on in your life.
Patti: Yeah, it’s the founders, it’s employees, it’s your boards, it’s your investors. The more diversity you can apply to all of those groups, I think the stronger companies will emerge at the end.
Paul: We’re kind of closing out here, and you talked a little bit about this already, so how does Invest Detroit navigate sort of the balance between investment returns that allow you to keep doing what you’re doing and long-term sustainable economic development for the Detroit region? How do you strike that balance?
Patti: So that’s a great question and I’ll let you know how well we are doing in about 10 years. It’s really hard. None of us have unlimited funds. Our returns do help fuel future investments. That’s why we would love to fund every entrepreneur with a great idea. We’re forced to be mindful of that portfolio balance. And there is no sure bet, though. If someone had told me that an inspection drone company or a bar line skipping application would be two hot flyers in our portfolio seven years ago, I probably would’ve laughed. So we’re always constantly having to evaluate our deals based on team experience, disruptive nature, long-term capital, market risks. But we also do really make sure that we’re thinking about founder inclusivity, industry diversification, and talent development, because they’re all a part of what makes this and makes what Michigan special. And so you do have to invest in founders knowing that they may not succeed the first time, but what are you delivering to the ecosystem long term? But it’s a constant shuffling, a constant evaluation of the companies we’re invested in. Where do we put our next dollar? We struggle with it every day. I just hope in the long run that balance is achieved.
Paul: So the last question is really about our work together. Recently, SPARK and Invest Detroit, along with some other organizations in the state, have begun to partner in a collaborative effort to encourage the state of Michigan to do more to support high-tech entrepreneurial startups, both through early funding and programming.
I want you to talk about how you see the competitive landscape, and we’ve all taken a good look to the Southeast. We may be defeating them in football, but we certainly aren’t defeating them in investment in early-stage companies!
So tell me why you think a collaborative effort is important and also what we would hope to accomplish in communicating to the MEDC about the importance of this part of the economic development portfolio.
Patti: Yeah, absolutely. And so first, I just want to say how thankful I am for the partnership with this coalition. So SPARK, University of Michigan, Michigan State, Western, just the folks pulling together to say, hey, there’s a problem, and how do we work together to try to solve it?
So unfortunately, the State of Michigan has woefully underinvested in entrepreneurship, which has put the State in a severe advantage, not just regionally but nationally. But we look regionally and we’ve got Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota really kicking our behind. The entrepreneurship and innovation budget at the MEDC has been shrinking or flat almost every year for the past decade. So while Ohio is investing close to a hundred million dollars per year in the State startup funds, the State of Michigan only invested $55 million in the past 12 years. So you think about that disparity and the amount of founders and that culture of, hey, we can get capital, we can work on our idea. We fail, there’s another opportunity. But there’s enough capital for companies to grow.
Our entrepreneurs here are struggling to get to a Series A. That first check might come fast, but then they’re really having to fight to get that next couple million dollars. So we’ve got to really look hard at how we compete against the regions or the states around us. I think the recently announced Michigan Innovation Capital Fund, which is a $23 million infusion of capital, is certainly a start. And I think we both are benefiting from that program for our entrepreneurs that we’re funding, but it doesn’t address the major needs of the entrepreneurial community. And I think where our partnership is really focused on is thinking about the long-term capital needs of our state’s founders.
So being able to advocate together for what we’re calling the Evergreen Fund of Funds that helps our nonprofit institutional organizations get to sustainability, meaning that the capital from our returns fully drives our ability to fund new early-stage companies in the future. And this is in the pipe dream. There have been plenty of states that have been able to create these revolving funds and being able to have a diverse couple of funds being able to be those institutional stalwarts for the ecosystem is a phenomenal long-term investment in the State’s innovation future.
Paul: I think that there’s an adage that is applied in a lot of different ways, but I think we’re stronger together. I think that by us communicating both to the administration and to the legislature, a collective viewpoint about this is important because when you do things individually, a lot of times you don’t have that sort of strength in your argument.
And the other thing that’s important about it is we try to communicate to people who are making decisions about making investments at the state level is that I go back to my predecessor, something that Mike Finney used to always say was that economic gardening is really important. There’s the two schools, there’s big game hunting and there’s gardening. The point I guess I would make, and I think you would agree with this, is we have a very vibrant garden, but if the harvesting of the garden is done by people who don’t live in our “patch,” let’s put it that way, we’ve helped a lot of companies grow or potentially brought products and services to market that helped humanity, if you want to put it that way, but the benefit of new jobs and bettering families life by growing companies to scale doesn’t happen here, then we’ve really missed that important opportunity. I think at least for us at SPARK, and I think it’s the case with Invest Detroit, w’re about growing companies so that it has both benefits, that the company is successful, but that it brings economic prosperity to the region.
And so I just want to thank you for all the work that you’ve done over the years, because you’re right, the ecosystem has really evolved, and we are, this is not a half-empty glass situation, we are in a very positive situation in terms of what’s happening. But you’re right, we need some more fuel to help move this along.
So really, Patti, thank you for talking with us today. Really appreciate it, and look forward to talking again sometime in the future on a check-in. Hopefully, we’ll have some things to talk about in the future as well.
Patti: Yeah, thank you, Paul. Great talking to you today.
Paul: Good. Okay. So I want to thank our audience also for listening and learning more about those leaders and organizations working hard to create the Ann Arbor Region’s economic future. These conversations are brought to you by Ann Arbor SPARK.
And I guess, Patti, do you want to give a little connection to Invest Detroit that we can add to this, how people can contact you?
Patti: Yeah, absolutely. So please, if you’d like to reach out to ID Ventures, the venture arm of Invest Detroit, please go to idventures.com. We have a Contact Us form. You are always able to reach out to me directly, firstname.lastname@example.org. But thank you for being an incredible ecosystem and hopefully we can serve you in the future.
Paul: Great. I wanted to give you that opportunity because we always tell people how to contact us, but hey, we should also do that for you. So anyway, that’s it for today. Thanks for listening and hope you will tune into this podcast and future ones.
Patti Glaza’s Bio
Patti Glaza, with over 20 years of experience in advanced technology development, is the EVP and Managing Director of Invest Detroit Ventures. Having joined in 2014, she manages early-stage venture funds focused on technology startups in the Midwest, providing investment capital and guidance. She plays a key role in fostering the growth of early-stage and high-growth companies, especially emphasizing support for women and minority entrepreneurs.
Before Invest Detroit, Glaza was a Principal at Arsenal Venture Partners, overseeing Michigan and Hawaii ventures, and led the Clean Technology and Sustainable Industries Organization (CTSI) as CEO. She has also held leadership positions in a nanotechnology firm, Small Times Media, and a healthcare IT company, HealthMedia. Glaza began her career at Accenture, focusing on supply chain logistics.
Her broad experience extends to non-profit board roles, including the Michigan Venture Capital Association and various others. She is also a certified instructor for several National Science Foundation programs and conducts women-based entrepreneurship training. Glaza holds a BA in International Relations & Economics from Michigan State University and an MBA from the University of Michigan.