At Arsenal Venture Partners, Maria Thompson views venture capital investment through a slightly different lens. “I am an entrepreneur first and foremost,” she explains. “Part of my interest in joining Arsenal was to see what it’s like on the other side of the table.”
Thompson accepted a position as entrepreneur-in-residence at the firm’s Ann Arbor office three years ago and serves as a resource and adviser to local entrepreneurs. Her entrepreneurial perspective is based upon her own experiences as the president and CEO of T/J Technologies Inc., an alternative energy start-up she co-founded with her husband, Levi Thompson, in 1991. The couple ran their company until 2006 when it was acquired by A123 Systems, a national supplier of high-power lithium-ion batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles. “When I was growing T/J, entrepreneurs in this area helped me, so this is my way of giving back,” she explains. “I try to be available to other entrepreneurs.”
As part of her job, Thompson works with Arsenal’s team to source and assess early and growth-stage investment opportunities in Michigan companies across a range of sectors, including commerce and logistics, enterprise IT, health care and resource efficiency. “I serve on the boards of many organizations, including NextEnergy, Ann Arbor SPARK, the University of Michigan’s Tech Transfer, the Zell Lurie Institute and the Transportation Research Institute, so I see a lot of things going on in the ecosystem,” she says. “I also meet many entrepreneurs and have developed an extensive network within the entrepreneurial community. Even if Arsenal chooses not to invest in a start-up company, I can introduce entrepreneurs to someone else in my network who may be interested in doing that deal.”
What excites Thompson most is the tremendous growth in the number of venture capital investors and entrepreneurs doing business and making deals in Michigan today, compared to 25 years ago when she and her husband launched T/J. The state’s underpinnings in university research and the automotive industry have positioned it well for future growth. “I think Michigan will become a center for advanced mobility, the connected-grid industry and advanced energy and storage,” she predicts. “Those industries will create many opportunities for entrepreneurs in software, enterprise IT and resource efficiency.”
The biggest challenge for young companies in Michigan is finding experienced C-level talent, according to Thompson. “Early on, it was hard to find people who wanted to take leadership positions at small, high-growth, high-risk ventures, because they were used to working at the automotive companies, where there is a different vibe,” she explains. “Now it’s getting easier to find C-level talent, because more entrepreneurs have started companies and gained experience that they can take with them to the next venture.” Venues, including the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, have played a leading role in educating, as well as connecting, entrepreneurs and VCs. “For me as an entrepreneur, the MGCS was a great place to learn,” Thompson comments. “I still learn something new every time I attend.”
She is optimistic that venture-backed start-ups in Michigan will continue to do well over the next five years. “We planted the seeds early and have seen the benefits in the growth of a vibrant VC and entrepreneurial environment,” Thompson remarks.