Charles Rothstein: Driving into New Industry

Since 2000, Michigan’s job losses approach 800,000–roughly half of the national total. Our state is at the eye of the economic storm; no state has been impacted more than Michigan. From 2000 until today, our GDP actually declined 1.9%, while the rest of the country’s increased by more than 16%. Not surprisingly, this erosion has encouraged an exodus of many from our state and the city of Detroit. According to the 2010 census, Michigan was the only state in the nation to register a population decline over the past 10 years. Once looked up to as an economic powerhouse, Michigan is now better known for its mothballed factories and abandoned buildings. So, not only are the numbers bad but so is our national/international image. Yet, if you watched the Super Bowl and saw Eminem’s commercial for Chrysler that evoked the pride of Detroit, you know we are fighting our way back.

Underneath the rubble and beyond the boarded up windows, Detroit and the state of Michigan have plenty to offer. Thanks to our renowned academic institutions, R&D intensity and industrial heritage, we still boast the nation’s largest population of engineers, on a per capita basis. Michigan has more than 568,000 computer-related occupations and over 7,000 info-tech firms, making it the nation’s fourth-largest tech employer. And, the State has some 320 advanced manufacturing research and development centers–more than the rest of North America. Yes, we may not be as glitzy as the Valley or the Alley, but the seeds for our comeback were planted long ago.

Our region now boasts a revived, retooled and technology-charged auto industry. How many would have predicted that? Moreover, Michigan is now a leader in the design and manufacture of advanced batteries. There are 17 companies across Michigan developing batteries to power everything from cars to cell phones. We are breeding a new generation of companies in the wind and solar power sectors, many of which morphed out of the automobile industry. Scores of healthcare companies are emerging as new technologies and materials are being applied to achieve better outcomes in the O.R. and wring out cost from an inefficient and antiquated delivery system. Michigan is as much a part of our nation’s future as we have been a major part of its proud past.

This comeback has been powered by the know-how and entrepreneurial grit of our people, state and federal programs that have catalyzed investment and an increase in the amount of venture and expansion capital available to nurture the development of next generation companies. Detroit may have been the poster child for economic devastation in the 2000s, but look to us now to be the model of reinvention and rebirth in the new economy. After all, that’s what the American spirit is all about.

Charles Rothstein is the senior managing director and co-founder of Detroit-based private equity firm Beringea. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own.