From Motor City to Health Innovation City? Detroit’s Unexpected Comeback

By Matthew Johnson

Fredericks, Marshall. The Spirit of Detroit. 1958. Detroit. – photograph by Matthew Johnson, 2018

In his latest post, Matthew Johnson takes us on his journey through Detroit – America’s “Motor City.” While it gained prominence as the epicenter of the U.S. automobile industry at the turn of the 20th century, Detroit has since struggled to recover from a host of events that have led to its demographic and economic decline. However, Matt’s recent visit shows us that there is much to look forward to in Detroit; and even after numerous lows and a bankruptcy declaration in 2013, the spirit of Detroit is driven to excel.

This series usually focuses on the health innovation scenes in different regions of Canada. For this entry, let’s assume that Canada has annexed Detroit from the U.S. As long as they insist on calling themselves “Hockeytown”, it’s really only a matter of time, anyway.

Much has been written about the falland rise, and fall–  of Detroit, an unfortunate posterchild of withering U.S. “Rust Belt” cities. Make no mistake, there is much heavy lifting to be done to counter the imposing macroeconomic trends confronting Detroit, and more still to ensure that the entire community recovers together.

But Detroit is on its way back, and health innovation has a significant role to play. Over the last year, I’ve been honoured to get to know some of the hardworking people driving collaboration between health innovation players across Southeast Michigan – and Southwest Ontario – in support of the growth of the region’s nascent biopharma and medtech sectors.

Any successful and sustainable health innovation cluster is anchored by world-class biomedical research and top-notch clinical services. Key research and clinical assets in Southeast Michigan include Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System, and the University of Michigan, which was awarded the third highest amount of NIH funding ($522 million) of all organizations worldwide in 2017.

Support for commercialization of the region’s medical research is provided by the team at Fast Forward Medical Innovation(FFMI), which manages entrepreneurship education programs and a number of early-stage commercialization funds at both the institutional and state levels.  Though based at the University of Michigan, FFMI really is an invaluable resource for health innovators across the whole state of Michigan, and they’ve been so welcoming to me whenever I’ve visited.

Life science companies are very well-represented at the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, a premier venture fair focusing on university spin-out companies. The potential for the region’s biomedical sector is on full display here as all manner of healthcare innovations – therapeutics, devices, diagnostics, software, and research tools – are pitched to angel, venture capital, and private equity investors from all over the U.S. It’s also a forum for technology transfer professionals from across the Midwest to connect and share best practices, further building capacity for commercial translation of medical research.

I was recently in Detroit for the 2ndannual MedHealth Summit, a unique cross-border event bringing together innovators, health systems, insurers, research institutions, and investors from across Southeast Michigan and Southwest Ontario. MedHealth is a grassroots effort to coalesce health innovation partners on both sides of the border, and to leverage their collective strengths to build a thriving international medtech cluster. Its early days to be sure, but the capacity and diversity of the MedHealth partners is undeniable, and the value of this initiative was clear at the Summit, which included a lively one-on-one matchmaking stream. I met a few companies that I’d definitely like to learn more about.

Finally, a word about the people I’ve met who are leading the charge for health innovation in the region. To a person, these are some of the most gracious and collaborative professionals I’ve come across, and I’ll be looking into ways for Bloom Burton to contribute to their mission of building a robust health innovation enterprise for Detroit and the surrounding areas. It’s always nice when you can do business with people you enjoy spending time with, so I think I’ll be making the drive to Detroit again soon.

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