The University Record, November 15, 1999

Entrepreneurial networks featured at IT business conference

By Suzanne Tainter
Senior Science Writer,
Division for Research Development and Administration

Kevin Bacon as the center of the universe? He occupies that exalted spot in a pastime devised by some film buffs that assigns Hollywood figures “Bacon numbers,” depending on how closely they have worked with Bacon, explains Wayne Baker, professor of organizational behavior at the School of Business Administration.

Someone who has worked in a movie with Kevin Bacon has a Bacon number of 1; someone who worked in a movie with someone who has worked in a movie with Bacon has a Bacon number of 2, and so on. (Mathematicians will recognize the scheme from Erdos numbers assigned to contacts of the legendary Paul Erdos.) The resulting network built around Bacon is a good example of the sort of open network that entrepreneurial people and businesses want to foster, Baker explains.

Because Bacon has worked in a wide variety of genres with actors who span several generations, he ends up connecting some discrete “clumps” in the Hollywood world, actors who would otherwise be associated only with actors of their own generation or only in romance films, for example. Baker explains that these networks demonstrate the affect of a few individuals who cross boundaries of generation, gender or geography to create entrepreneurial networks.

Baker outlined the value of social networks, how they are formed and which ones work well for entrepreneurs at a conference convened at the University on Nov. 9. The Social Capital and Information Technology Entrepreneurship conference brought together regional business people, students, faculty and administrators to discuss ways to meet the human resource needs of new businesses, especially technological ones.

Ann Arbor could become a linchpin in entrepreneurial networks by globally bridging “clumps,” Baker says—by creating a local forum with global participation; by designating “network entrepreneurs” to actively form connections to far-flung clumps; and by attracting businesses and talent here to form local networks.

“We sponsored this conference to give the information technology (IT) community an opportunity to build their own social networks,” says Marvin Parnes, associate vice president for research and executive director of research administration, and interim director of the Technology Management Office (TMO). “And we wanted to address a topic that was central to our discussions in the Governor’s Innovation Forum last spring—that is, the critical need to retain, recruit and train a technologically sophisticated workforce.”

The University is meeting the need for technology talent through the education of students in fields such as engineering and information sciences. The U-M also helps fill the need for IT entrepreneurs through the Business School’s focus on entrepreneurial education, points out Karen Bantel, of the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies and head of the Wolverine Venture Fund, a fund giving students actual experience in the process of investing in new businesses.

Bantel has linked area business startups, venture capital firms and TMO to create internships for students in enterprise development. Matthew Moore, an intern in the TMO program, explained that the nascent companies provided the entrepreneurial idea, and they received his energy and business experience. Most students in the program have at least five years of “real-world” business experience, Bantel says.

Tom Porter, Enterprise Development Fund, and Gail Lutey, Complete Business Solutions Inc., discussed the need for technology savvy workers and offered strategies for finding retaining, recruiting, and developing a skilled workforce in Michigan. Today’s talent wants stock options, a “bleeding edge” technology development to work on, flexibility in schedules and work culture, good mentoring, smaller companies and a region that offers a good “quality of life,” according to presenters.

Ken Nisbet, TMO business development specialist, and Susan Lackey of the Washtenaw Development Council, outlined efforts to create and launch the IT Zone, an “incubator” that aims to foster social network development and attract support services that new IT businesses need.

Steve Glauberman of Enlighten discussed how to use the Web to alert potential candidates to job openings, and Rick Snyder of Avalon Investments reported on his company’s efforts to entice top flight recruiting firms to locate in the area.

The conference was sponsored by the Technology Management Office, Office of the Vice President for Research and the Division for Research Development and Administration.