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Michigan eLab

505 E. Liberty St
Suite LL500
Ann Arbor, MI 48104

Doug Neal

Most people see Michigan's brain drain as a problem. A few see it as an opportunity. Doug Neal sees both.

Neal is one of the co-founders of Michigan eLab, a venture capital firm that invests in early stage tech startups. The serial entrepreneur sees his investment vehicle as a significant piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving the problem/exploiting the opportunity of talent retention.

Michigan's brain drain is well documented both statistically and anecdotally. Earlier this year, the Detroit Regional Chamber released a survey that shows 37 percent of the state’s college graduates in 2012 moved away after college. A University Research Corridor report from this spring shows 19 percent of graduates from Michigan three research universities go on to start a business, nearly double the national average. The report adds that slightly less than half of those businesses call the Great Lakes State home.

And then there is the anecdotal evidence. Google co-founder & CEO Larry Page grew up in East Lansing and went to the University of Michigan. Retiring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer came of age in Farmington Hills. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo graduated from U-M, too.

"If we can keep them here, or attract some of them back, then we are unlocking tremendous opportunities for new startups and new company creation right here," Neal says. "That's what makes me excited, finding the next Larry Page."

That's a driving force behind Michigan eLab. Neal sees a major factor of talent retention is challenging young people. Capitalize on their idealism and desire to make a difference. That's where Detroit's longstanding problems become its future opportunities. Eliminating blight, creating better mass transit, rebuilding a major city’s urban core, improving education, all of these things are challenges young, talented people want to take on. The drawback is there are so many of challenges that it’s difficult to rally people.

"The challenge we have is creating a density of people around problem solving," Neal says. "We are too defocused. Just like any business that goes off and tries to do 100 things at once, it's not going to be very successful at any one thing. There is more value in trying to be very specific and get something done. In my experience, focus has always been a great way to create success."

Creating that success also involves less provincialism and more welcome mats. Neal points out that Michiganders need to stop vilifying people who leave when exploring the world at an early age is a normal, healthy life experience. He adds many of those talented ex-patriots often think of returning.

"We need to speak to 30-somethings that are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 101 in Silicon Valley," Neal says. "They have small kids at home and grandparents in Michigan. They want to move back. We need to make it easy for them to move back."

Welcoming talent back is just one aspect of it. Keeping those people here to begin with is another. The best way to seal those deals is to show there are viable paths to succeed in Michigan.

"The challenge we have is telling the positive stories that are happening in Michigan," Neal says. "There are tremendous opportunities here. We just need to keep looking for them. This is the place that creates amazing people."

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