Guest Blogger: Irene Spanos

Irene Spanos was appointed director of the Oakland County Dept. of Economic Development & Community Affairs by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson in 2011. As director, she oversees the operation of the department and its six divisions: Business Development (attraction/retention), Planning, Finance, Workforce Development, Marketing & Communication and Community & Home Improvement. Before her appointment, she spent seven years with the county as a senior business development representative, specializing in the bio-technology and medical devices sectors and was involved in the launch of Medical Main Street, the county’s initiative to grow the life sciences and health care industries in Southeast Michigan. She also worked with companies headquartered in Europe on growing their presence in Oakland County.

Spanos majored in marketing and holds a business administration degree from Wayne State University.  She is a member of the Swedish, German & French American Chamber of Commerce, and Southfield’s Healthcare Corridor board.  Spanos also sits on the Mechatronics Certificate advisory board for Oakland Community College, on the advisory board of Oakland University’s Incubator: OU INC and is a member of the Michigan Economic Developers Association and the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) Research Group.

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What exactly is the Tech Boom in Southeast Michigan?

Many of us keep reading local and national headlines about the tech boom in southeast Michigan. From Forbes magazine to the Wall Street Journal, many have noticed the technology innovation coming from our region. But what does that mean exactly? What does it look like?  Why is that good for all of us? 

Communications and information technology has been a targeted industry for Oakland County since the inception of the Emerging Sectors® Initiative launched by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson in 2004. In recent years however, this sector has become the fastest growing sector in Oakland County, with over 100 companies locating or expanding in our community. These companies have invested over $571 million in Oakland County and created over 9,000 new jobs in this sector. The same is true throughout the entire Metro Detroit region.

Who are these companies? What exactly do they do/make? That’s where our region really begins to get exciting. The diversity of products, services and innovation in various industries is what makes Metro Detroit so darn exciting, from game developer Scientifically Proven in Farmington Hills, which just won best new Indie Game of the Year for Blood of the Werewolf (100% developed in Oakland County), to Vectorform in Royal Oak that created a new “Google Glass Monkey Game” for autism therapy for Kaiser Permanente, to the innovative Microsoft R&D Center in Southfield and the beautiful HP campus in Pontiac. ePrize in Pleasant Ridge and Media Genesis in Troy continue to grow at amazing speeds nationally.

In healthcare, there is in Bloomfield Hills, which has developed an online platform where patients can easily identify clinical trials currently taking place that focuses on their specific illness, and Intrinsic Medical Imaging in Bloomfield Hills, also a Medical Main Street network member, that has developed software that allows 3-D medical imaging to reach a new level: allowing the image to move within the specific organ being viewed.

Then there is Pixo Group in Southfield, which has developed an analytical tool that tracks user interaction and allows you to communicate directly with those users. Lakeside Software in Bloomfield Hills has developed software that allows IT managers to evaluate usage of various programs on enterprise-level computers, allowing for huge cost savings and maximized utilization of paid software licenses—all developed here in Michigan. In the education space, there is Future Help Designs and Mobile Comply, both located in Pontiac, and developing apps and platforms for traditional education and non-traditional training methods. These folks are creating the standards for learning /training with apps in education.

We also can’t forget about Livio Radio in Ferndale that was just recently bought out by Ford Motor Company for its technology with Pandora Radio. From healthcare to consumer products, to education to defense, that technology is being developed here in the Metro Detroit region and sold around the world. 

There are actually over 2,800 of these cool tech companies here in Oakland County alone, employing over 90,000 people with an average salary of over $104,000 a year. These are good-paying, knowledge-based jobs. Another benefit is that our young people love to work in these fields with these exciting and innovative companies. No longer will it be assumed that our graduates get a one way ticket to Palo Alto, Houston, Chicago or Boston. With the tech boom happening right here in our own backyard, we will see more of our kids staying in the great state of Michigan! Which parent wouldn’t love that?

So what has Oakland County been doing to foster these young (and large) tech companies? Many things. We’ve formed our first OakTech Connect group — a focus group of about 20 tech companies (mostly 2nd stage level) and we are asking them what they need. As a result of our first few meetings we’ve already delivered two items they need “yesterday”:

  1.  Workforce/Talent—OakTech Connect partnered with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to host the very first “TALENT Connect” in Oakland County.  We got the job descriptions of their most “hard-to-fill” positions and we are searching nationwide to bring those candidates to Michigan. The weeklong event took place January 26-29th in Birmingham, Michigan. Part of the candidates’ experience was to see the great quality of life we enjoy here in Oakland County, coupled with great career opportunities in our community.
  2.  Connection to Oakland Schools iTeam program – Oakland School’s Technical Campuses have a very strong iTeam program composed of 11th and 12th graders learning to write code and develop software programs. We’ve connected several of our tech companies to the various iTeams throughout the county to engage them in “growing our talent” locally.

In addition to those two new programs, we continue to offer our Small Business Center as a great asset to the tech community. Our Small Business Center reviews business plans and helps tech companies prepare financially for bank and venture capital presentations. They work with our tech companies to ensure their “first impression” is their “best” impression. We also provide tech companies with media help and promotion/marketing outlets and can provide research information that is vital to their growth. Oakland County also has a microloan program and administers the SBA 504 Loan program here, too. What is especially cool is that all of these services are paid for through tax dollars, so there is no cost to tech companies to get the help they need to move to the next stage of growth. With “Walk-in- Thursdays” at our Small Business Center, tech companies don’t even need to make an appointment. They can show up in the county offices in Waterford and speak to one of our great counselors. 

Because of this cool tech boom in our region, we’ve seen some pretty cool office spaces being built too.  Check out Venture Park in Royal Oak, home to a handful of West Coast and East Coast companies looking for a presence here in Michigan, or to iHill in Downtown Pontiac, home to several of these cool tech start-ups. There is even a new “shared space” office for tech start-ups in Southfield called Koala Work. These places are ideal for tech start-ups of any size. The rent is affordable and there is usually no long-term commitment required with these spaces—many of them accept month-to-month leases. Plus you are in great company with other cool tech folks for collaboration, partnership and cross sales.

The Oakland University Incubator (OU INC) has been a preferred landing spot for a few of our international  tech companies that want access to the software developers and engineering students at the school, and that also want to collaborate with various research departments at the university. Automation Alley’s International Business Center (IBC) in Troy is a world-recognized international landing spot for tech companies that want to test out the Metro Detroit market. Companies at the IBC have access to some of the latest hi-definition video conferencing technologies in the world.  
I love being in any one of these  above places—I feel like I want to create something cool right there and then—if only I knew how to write code! These cool work spaces in Oakland County are just so inspirational. 

So Oakland County and the entire southeast Michigan region are well poised to truly become the next tech hotspot. We have the educated workforce, we have the industry diversification, we have thousands of cool companies already here, cool office spaces, and great business resources and support. We do indeed have it all in Pure Michigan! Why else would the only other U.S. Patent office outside of Washington D.C. be located in our region? They know.