From AA Spark: From Job Seeker to Co-Founder – Reflecting on Ann Arbor’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

In 2012, Brian Kelly arrived in Ann Arbor for a job at Duo Security. Over the past seven years, he worked for another local startup, founded a product marketing consulting firm, co-founded a thriving startup, and currently serves on Ann Arbor SPARK’s executive committee.

With such a range of experience, Brian has a unique perspective on — as well as a strong appreciation for — the Ann Arbor region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“Compared to when we first moved here, there are a lot more startups and it’s notable how many are funded. One way to measure how the region has created a namesake over the years is to share our experience raising venture capital for Censys,” Brian recalled. “Within six months of starting the company, we headed out for a one-week trip to the west coast to raise a couple million in seed capital. When we met with name brand venture firms like GV (Google Ventures) and Greylock Partners, they had no qualms about us growing the company in Ann Arbor. To me, that’s a pretty strong signal of Ann Arbor’s status as a tech hub.”

Home to the largest public research university in the county, Brian credits the partnership between the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor’s entrepreneurial ecosystem — including SPARK — for much of the region’s success. “The University of Michigan has roughly 500 invention disclosures a year. If ready for commercialization, these inventions either turn into patented intellectual property that will be licensed to large companies, or they are spun out of the university into a new startup company. This partnership facilitates the path for startups to remain in the area.”

While the University of Michigan may be a key ingredient, according to Brian the real “secret sauce” is the Midwest aesthetic of supporting each other. “Those of us who have been there before are easily accessible to first-time founders and people who are curious about the process. I’ll get cold emails and if the sender has a specific, thoughtful ask, I’ll bend over backwards to help them out. And I’m not alone. There’s a supportive ecosystem of founders, programmers, marketers, and CEOs who will actually sit down with driven, first-time founders for an hour on a regular basis.”

It’s not just the number of startups that have grown since 2012. When Brian first moved to the area, he and his wife Ann were expecting their first child. Since then, they’ve welcomed their second child to the family. “We landed in a great place. I think it really offers a wonderful quality of life, especially for people with young families and for individuals who value being engaged with their community. You can build a truly great, disruptive tech company in Ann Arbor or Silicon Valley. What’s special here is that it’s also easy to build a truly meaningful life.”