WLAA Exclusive: Q&A with Ann Arbor Spark CEO Paul Krutko

Paul Krutko, Ann Arbor SPARK’s president and CEO, recently participated in a WeLoveAnnArbor Q&A regarding the current pandemic and its economic impact on the area.  Ann Arbor SPARK is a public-private partnership of business, government and academic institutions working to create economic prosperity in the Ann Arbor area of innovation. In his role as CEO, Krutko leads the organization’s efforts to expand the regional economy through initiatives to support entrepreneurs and early-stage companies accelerating their growth to full potential. SPARK implements a strategic framework designed to maintain and to enhance the region’s global competitiveness.

Q: Overall, from your perspective, how are local businesses holding up?

This is truly an unprecedented time in our country, in our community. Business needs far exceed the resources available to help, on the local, state, and federal level. We’re seeing that business owners are getting creative in how they’re handling operations right now. For instance, Akervall Technologies, which manufactures mouth guards for sports — which aren’t happening at all right now — is now manufacturing PPE. Or Adaptive Energy, which manufactures fuel cells, is now manufacturing intubation hoods and face shields. Even down to the street level, we see restaurants offering takeout and delivery and retailers putting together “COVID boredom kits” and mailing them across the country. We will all get through this together and SPARK is grateful to help be part of the effort by helping businesses understand the support available to them, and where needed, guiding them through those processes.

Q: What do you see the role of AA Spark in the economic recovery in and around Ann Arbor?

A: Our work hasn’t changed – we are still committed to helping innovation-based businesses of all sizes start, locate, and grow in our region. As from before COVID, we are set up to be a hub where businesses can connect to resources – most recently, funding for distressed businesses made available by the state, county, and private foundations. Post-COVID, we will continue to seek out opportunities for businesses to help them connect to what they need to support growth, from funding to incentives to talent to visibility in our region and more.

Q: How do you see the reboot of business once the green light is given and what will be the early challenges?

A: I believe there will be a gradual return to our new normal as we adjust to going back to work and getting back to the core of our work versus the work we’re doing to address the distress caused by the pandemic. Much like the transition to our current COVID behavior, there will be early challenges that we can anticipate — like going back to work versus working from home — and those that not even a crystal ball could predict. One of the most important aspects at play here is to remember the importance of being flexible and adapting where necessary, but also to know when to seek help and guidance when things seem unclear. We are all in this together.

Q: How important will collaboration with the partners you work with be during the recovery?

A: We place tremendous value in the partners that SPARK works with to support economic vitality in our region and the importance of those relationships is now and will continue to be heightened as we move towards recovery. An example: Our Local Development Finance Authority, which funds startup activity in our region, supported SPARK’s decision to temporarily close our incubators by providing rent relief to the companies located in our locations in downtown Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. We identified a need, brought it forward to LDFA, and they responded favorably to meet the needs of these emerging companies in our region. We worked with the county to quickly establish and deploy funding for distressed Washtenaw businesses. We worked with the state in a similar fashion, but also worked with the state this past month on a more traditional project – to secure an incentive for a business wanting to grow its footprint and headcount in our community.

Q: What can businesses do to better prepare when/if something like this happens again – is that something you see Spark getting involved in – helping businesses better prepare for emergencies?

A: At SPARK we deliver a program of over 150 events a year with the broad focus on helping companies with an array of business issues and challenges that they face in normal times.  We have pivoted during the Covid recession to provide as much assistance as we can to companies with their immediate needs.  As we come out of this, SPARK will create content to help our companies learn from this experience and to plan for the future.  I’m an optimist but this will not be our last national or global crisis and for sure, not our last recession.  Building more resiliency and sustainability in the Ann Arbor region’s economy will be important work for our team in the next few years.