Sparking a Change in Ann Arbor

By Lauren Ebelt on January 9th, 2013 / Comments

There’s a sense of inspiration when you walk into SPARK’s incubator headquarters in Ann Arbor. To the one side are clusters of cubicles, scribbled on white boards, conference rooms, and stacks of paper everywhere. To the other side are a few people setting up chairs for a public event and several young entrepreneurs hunkered down over their computer working on the next big thing.

Bill Mayer, director of entrepreneurial services at SPARK, greets me at the door. He easily convinces me that SPARK is the place in Ann Arbor for any new business go-getter to be. He has a vast wealth of knowledge, is energetic, and, best of all, is really helpful. Almost immediately upon entering the facility, I felt comfortable in its colorful interior, mostly due to Mayer’s calm yet somehow exuberant manner.

SPARK, in short, is a place for entrepreneurs. It’s a place for that small business that maybe needs an extra hand. SPARK is a place to become more than just an idea—but it’s more than that, too. SPARK focuses on the advancement of Ann Arbor’s economy by assisting early stage startups through events, education, and space to grow.

And at the risk of sounding like a paid spokesperson, this space has everything. It has the room for startups to be in a genuine office environment, with things like copiers, printers, and high-tech conference rooms at their disposal. SPARK even has the unique quality of start up businesses clustered together so they can bounce ideas off one another and learn from each other.

It’s everything you could want in an office space—at the fraction of the cost.

There is also the added benefit of Mayer serving as a mentor. His job is to guide the startups along, help connect them to who they need to be connected to, and challenge them to be so successful that they “graduate” from SPARK.

SPARK is designed as a crash-course entrepreneurial program, complete with an intense boot camp, graduation requirements, and weekly meetings with Mayer to check their progress. Are the businesses growing—generating revenue? Hiring people? Gathering clients? Mayer works with the startups from their earliest stages to when they walk out the door.

Even if the business isn’t doing well, Mayer says, “failure doesn’t always mean failure—you just have to pivot.” Businesses change as they grow—SPARK helps them through these shifts with its unique, one-on-one service.

What really captured my attention about SPARK is how excited its startups were. I was able to talk with two: Ornicept, specializing in identifying birds via “computer vision,” and Think Tech Labs, a software consultancy and solution development firm.

Ornicept’s founder and chief technology officer, Russell Conard, said that before SPARK, “it felt like it was us against the world.” After joining SPARK in August 2012, that viewpoint has changed. Ornicept recently reached a milestone thanks to SPARK—they hired their first person full time.

Justin Otani, CEO, said that SPARK “is great. They helped us grow, access a professional network, and gave us financial resources,” among countless other things.

“It’s the difference between telling you what to do and helping you get there,” Conard said. “They help plug the cracks in the dam.”

Without a hesitation, both Ornicept and Think Tech Labs “absolutely” recommend SPARK to startups.

For Vijay Mehra, founder and CEO of Think Tech Labs, the real pull to SPARK was its accessible network. Mayer, and the rest of the SPARK team, work with startups to put them in touch with people to test their business and product, and potentially even future clients. SPARK’s “ecosystem of tools and connections,” Mehra says, helped his company grow.

Think Tech Labs has only been with SPARK for 11 months, and has been awarded Salesforce.com’s Customer Service Award for 2011, grown their workforce by seven, and launched a new application based on real estate.

With SPARK, success can be achievable. “Take advantage of the knowledge base and information,” Mehra urges potential newcomers to SPARK.  Otani from Ornicept agrees, saying that they “wouldn’t have been able to get [to where they are] without SPARK.”

Interested in SPARK? Check out their website, www.annarborusa.org, for more information. Also check out some of the other Michigan Business Incubators.

Photos via Spark.

About the Author

Lauren Ebelt

Lauren is a recent graduate from Michigan State University. She likes traveling, blogging about the food she eats, and correct grammar.