Gov. Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist by trade who has invested millions of dollars in early stage companies, knew a good thing when he saw it.
So did Phil Hagerman, the co-founder of Flint-based Diplomat Pharmacy Inc., a $4.5-billion-a-year specialty pharmaceutical company.
In 2014, a serial entrepreneur in the Upper Peninsula, David Ollila, created a program at Northern Michigan University in Marquette called [email protected], a program where business, marketing and engineering students, among others, could help would-be entrepreneurs vet their ideas and provide them with business-development help.
Snyder toured [email protected] in 2015. In the last two minutes of his State of the State speech in 2015 — a speech otherwise dominated by the Flint water crisis — Snyder used [email protected] as an example of how innovation can happen anywhere.
In May 2016, Hagerman told the governor about his plan to invest in startup companies in Flint and create an incubator to help grow them. Snyder told him he ought to check out [email protected]. Hagerman flew to Marquette a week later, met Ollila and offered him a job.
Today, Ollila is president and chief innovation officer at Skypoint Ventures LLC, Hagerman’s for-profit real-estate and venture-capital firm, and president of 100K Ideas, a nonprofit modeled after [email protected] that occupies a big chunk of the ground floor of the Ferris Wheel Innovation Center.
100K Ideas’ budget of $1.5 million is year is funded by Skypoint Ventures, the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Huntington Bank and the Michigan Office of Energy. The MEDC has committed a total of $1.5 million over three years.
The Ferris Wheel, a seven-story, 40,000-square-foot art deco building, opened in November after a $7.5 million renovation. It had sat empty for 30 years, an iconic building on downtown’s Saginaw Street that once housed the Ferris Fur Co.
The business model behind 100K is that most business ideas are, in fact, lousy. “It’s a high throughput model,” said Ollila. “We’re very honest. You might only get one in 100 ideas that ends up being a success. This is not a cradle to grave model. But there are 100,000 people in Flint. If every one brought in an idea, we could rebuild the middle class.”
Anyone can walk in the front door and meet immediately with someone from the nonprofit and explain their idea. Staff includes three permanent paid employees and 12-15 students in a variety of disciplines, from business students to mechanical and electrical engineers to graphic designers, from Kettering University, Mott Community College and the University of Michigan-Flint, who are also paid for their time.