How the New Entrepreneurial Spirit in Detroit Benefits All of Michigan

Even if you’re not in the habit of perusing business news, you owe it to yourself to read Inc. magazine’s comprehensive new series, “Innovation Hot Spots: Detroit.” The package of 15 stories (yes, you read that number right) about the city’s new startup culture crystallizes why so many people like me are bullish on the Motor City.

One of the headlines in this series puts it well: We are witnessing “A Whole New Groove for the Motor City” take shape. All of us who care about Detroit specifically and Michigan more broadly should feel excited about our region’s newfound sense of optimism and possibility.

Proud to Partner

I’ve written before about how we’re aligning our actions at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan with efforts to strengthen core cities like Detroit — by relocating roughly 3,000 suburban employees to downtown, by being part of the Live Downtown residency initiative, and by partnering with local vendors to create jobs, embrace diversity and achieve key business objectives.

While consolidating our corporate campus serves definite business interests, one of the secondary goals was to help support a critical mass of businesses in the central business district with people able to support them with their money. With help from partners like General Motors, Compuware, DTE Energy, Ilitch Holdings, Quicken Loans and its founder-turned venture capitalist, Dan Gilbert, we’re starting to see the fruits of those efforts.

Harnessing Our Intellectual Capital

Imagine the ability to harness our own natural strengths once the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office opens its first satellite branch in Detroit later this year:

…Michigan colleges and universities graduate more than 6,675 engineers and engineering technicians each year, ranking Michigan fourth in theUnited Statesfor engineering degrees conferred, points out Benjamin Erulkar, the senior vice president of economic development for the Detroit Regional Chamber. And the struggling auto industry, a PTO official says, also has led to unemployed engineers eager for work.

Detroit also has the highest concentration of industrial and mechanical engineers in theUnited States—about three times the U.S. average—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2009, Michigan ranked 7th in the nation for the total number of patents with 3,516. And The Dice Report, a monthly look at the technology job market, reported last year that Detroit is now the fastest-growing region for technology jobs in America.

“Over the past decade, when every economic indicator was going down, the one area in which Michigan improved its performance was patent production,” Erulkar says. “It’s a symbol not only of the ecosystem that we have, but the potential we have to grow it in future years.”

The re-emergence of entrepreneurship heralds great things for everyone in the Detroit region and across Michigan. It heralds the possibility for new, good-paying jobs in the knowledge economy, yes, and also for reversing the region’s brain-drain exodus of young talent to places like New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

Innovation, Prosperity and Good Health: a Win-Win for the City and State

But I confess a slightly more parochial interest as well. Established businesses like the Blues could find groundbreaking new opportunities to partner with technology companies whose products and services dovetail with our mission to provide access to quality health care at a reasonable price to anyone who needs it.

Who knows what opportunities could grow from a downtown Detroit filled with such companies. Innovative new ways to cut costs from the health care system or streamline care, perhaps? Mobile apps devoted to keeping users focused on their health goals? New ways to communicate with your doctors and specialists?

The sense of possibility is as infectious as it is exciting. To the new startups popping up inDetroit, I’m here to say that BCBSM is open and ready to do business.

Daniel J. Loepp is president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and the executive committee chairman of the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

Photo by Timmy Caldwell

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