[Photo by Sean Mathis, Courtesy SXSW]
By Kathy Barks Hoffman
When one of the nation’s premier emerging technology conferences kicks off on Friday, Michigan’s University Research Corridor (URC) and the three universities that comprise it will be on the scene in Austin, Texas, to play a role at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival, known as “an incubator of cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity.”
Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University all plan to promote how well the state is doing with its own digital creativity and cutting-edge technologies, whether that means developing autonomous cars or nanotechnology that can lead to less invasive medical procedures.
That spirit of innovation can be seen in student startup team Carbon Cash, which will be competing Monday, March 10, in the finals of SXSW’s Student Startup Madness tournament, won last year by the MSU student founders of Tempo Run. Carbon Cash co-founders Bernie Eisbrenner, Pat Schmitz and Jon Bauer are looking forward to the competition, which pits one team from each of six regions as well as two at-large teams against one another. The key to winning is to make the best pitch before a judging panel of successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and investors. MSU is the only university that competed last year to return for this year’s contest.
Although Carbon Cash already has won the MSU Broad College of Business Undergraduate Pitch Competition, the SXSW competition will give the team the chance to “really get our name out there,” said Eisbrenner, whose app enables students to track their electricity use, compete with other students and get rewards for using electricity responsibility. “This is just kind of a green, socially responsible marketing trend that a lot of businesses are trying to tap into.”
Accompanying the three Carbon Cash founders to Austin will be Paul Jaques of Spartan Innovations, which has provided advice and resources to Carbon Cash as part of its mission to create sustainable start-up ventures from MSU inventions and creative works.
Stephanie Fries, relationship manager for Wayne State University’s business engagement office, The Front Door, and URC Program Manager Britany Affolter-Caine will be working at SXSW with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and its Pure Michigan campaign to promote the state and its growing technology and entrepreneurial sectors.
A big part of their conversation will be telling the story of how Detroit is turning into a great place for entrepreneurs and established businesses to grow while drawing on the state’s highly trained workers and researchers, many of them experts in biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, health sciences, agriculture and alternative energy.
“I want the three URC universities to be among the reasons a business decides to set up shop or to expand in Michigan and in Metro Detroit,” Fries said. “The universities are hubs of innovation and technology, and we want help businesses solve technical problems or find the workers they need.”
At its SXSW booth, U-M will be demonstrating innovations such as student-produced video games, model helicopters that can fly themselves and Egg-Bot, a printer that can print on spherical and egg-shaped objects such as ping pong balls. U-M also will host its second annual alumni reception Saturday at Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue in Austin. A large number of U-M alumni are involved in SXSW Interactive, speaking on everything from how technology is empowering parents to how to build the post-human brain.
Having a presence at SXSW “is keeping out the welcome sign so these people know if they ever want to come back to the state of Michigan, they can,” said Affolter-Caine of the URC. “We want to make sure our alumni know that Michigan and Detroit are on the rebound.”
Faculty and staff members from U-M and MSU will be making presentations during the five-day festival:
Also during SXSW, U-M Professor Katharina Reinecke will join with fellows from MIT and Harvard Medical School to discuss the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) nature of research subjects and strategies for countering that bias. Dr. Chuck Severance will hold a collaborative chat with students from his Coursera course on internet history, technology and security, as well as hold a book signing for his how-to guide, “Python for Informatics.” And at SXSW Music, U-M Professor Paul Conway will describe an effort to overcome the barriers to accessing, cataloging and playing live recordings.
Affolter-Caine said SXSW offers Michigan’s URC both a chance to see what other research universities are doing and to let the world know that Michigan and its top-notch research universities are a great place to launch new ideas and find the support needed to bring them to fruition.
“The URC universities produce thousands of graduates each year going into high-demand jobs such as technology and engineering. They also are home to world-class researchers and research facilities, and have helped hundreds of students, alumni and faculty launching new businesses. Michigan also is home to the largest concentration of automotive R&D in the country,” she said.
“We want to spread the word that Michigan is a great place to start a business, get help refining a product or hire the talent needed by emerging tech companies.”