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Kicking it up a notch

Jeff Bocan thinks Michigan is getting a well-deserved kick in the pants right now.

We got soft, enjoying those fat automotive jobs. We stopped innovating. We failed to think or act as entrepreneurs.

Everybody's welcome to their own opinion, right? Well, Bocan has more than a soapbox to stand on. He has a regular blog spot since September on one of the Web's most popular sites, The Huffington Post. And he's using it to tell stories about business, Michigan and the Midwest – good and bad.

Rather than just link to his blog posts, I recently stole a few minutes from Bocan's schedule and asked him about his work, why he came to Michigan and how he got his blog.

First, a little background. Bocan is managing director of Beringea LLC, a venture capital firm. It is based in London and Farmington Hills, a distant Detroit suburb. Bocan lives in Ann Arbor with his wife and three children. (He went to Notre Dame for his undergrad; now, he's living in unfriendly Wolverine territory.)

His job is to invest in up-and-coming companies. Specifically, his primary focus for Beringea is a $100 million venture fund dedicated to companies that are already or willing to come to Michigan. He focuses mainly on “clean tech” and health-care sectors.

Q: How did Michigan get lazy?

A: There was this notion for a generation that is was easier to get a job working for the auto companies than for yourself. You'd get a job on the assembly line, get the house on the lake and you're set. It was comfortable. There was no reason to push yourself. So for the past 50 or so years, there's been a lack of corporate innovation. The little there has been has focused on automotive. … There's 10 million people here. And with the environment now, it's creating a lot of first-time entrepreneurs. Most won't succeed, but the impact of even one hitting it big can touch the lives of thousands of people.

Q: Is there any chance for Michigan to recover? Is there a window for the turnaround?

A: We get calls and emails every day from outside of the state, all of them looking for opportunities to grow their businesses here. The state of Michigan, to its credit, has been very aggressive in contacting companies, and it's starting to have an impact. Michigan is on the radar. (But) it's not going to happen in five years. It could happen in 10 or 15 years. In those first five years, the companies that are growing will become well known on a national level and enjoy serious success. Their success will beget other success. … We (at Beringea) are not betting on the entire Michigan economy. We're looking for 10 to 20 great companies. But their impact could be significant. It can transform a community – over time. The company has to get its revenue up, then start hiring and that then trickles down to the schools, the cities and the people.

Q: Why does Michigan need entrepreneurism?

A: Because the Brain Drain is very real here. For so long there was no place or support for the innovators. I have an acquaintance, Kevin O'Connor. He went to Detroit Catholic Central. He graduated from the University of Michigan. He loved it here. But there was no support, no like-minded people, no interest in getting him to stay. He founded Double Click, which he sold to Google for something like $3 billion. Before that he started an Internet security company, which he sold to IBM for another $1 billion. The next Kevin O'Connor might be here right now. We've got to get them to stay here. … Look at Ann Arbor. Many are very optimistic there. There's lots of entrepreneurial spirit. There are the universities, the research centers. There are ideas and relationships there than can be developed that serve as the foundation for great entrepreneurial ventures.

Q: What areas are you most excited about?

A: Green technology and health care – the momentum for those industries is here already. There are chances that some of these new companies can become future Fortune 100 businesses. … We're looking at the Western side of the state too: Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo. That's a big health-care area and there's lots of potential. We have someone going in there all the time from our office. … The biggest struggle is in the north. There's tourism, but that's about it. They'll be challenged to do as well as other areas, without some radical changes.

Q: How did you end up on the Huffington Post? Shouldn't you have some tiny spot on the Web first before hitting the Big Time?

A: I had a friend when I lived in California who was a reporter for CNN that is friends with former CNN anchorwoman Willow Bay. Willow is now an editor at the Huffington Post. She came to Detroit to meet with Ford Motor Co., and one of my friends said, ‘Jeff's here, why don't you meet with him, too?' We talked and I gave her the first version of what ended up being my first post. The angle is more of a Midwestern view. I'm on the ground working with my firm, trying to revitalize the economy that's beaten down, trying to get them to do something different than they have in the past. I'm working with companies, sitting on boards, talking to entrepreneurs. We're actually investing and writing checks here. So I'm different than the typical talking head. I won't quit my day job for my blog, but I'm having a great time with it. The reaction to my first post was so humbling. It's a great platform to have to get the word out there about what's happening here.

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