Michigan Tech Week, designed to showcase and strengthen the state’s high-growth tech ecosystem, invited founders to join a pitch competition that was all about teamwork.

“In a typical pitch competition, there’s one winner, and you’ve got all these other entrepreneurs, equally as deserving, walking away,” said Trista Van Tine, cofounder of the Michigan Founders Fund, which developed the competition. “Yes, they’ve gotten exposure, but nothing tangible to help them continue on with that business.” 

Michigan Tech Week competitors learned the rules just a week before the October 2022 event: Those selected to participate were required to work with at least two other founders on an idea to move Michigan’s economy forward. The winning team would receive $100,000 in capital from the Song Foundation, plus $5,000 in legal fees, to be split equally among the businesses.

The goal of this non-traditional approach “was to further that value of founder-to-founder support and the importance of relationships in the success of venture-backed companies,” Van Tine said.

“From the get-go, it wasn’t about winning the competition; it was about bringing in everyone’s expertise and life experience.”


The winning pitch was a community health initiative to quantify and mitigate the effects of air pollution in Michigan’s disadvantaged communities. Team members include Darren Riley of real-time air-quality monitoring system JustAir Solutions, Kevin Hagedorn of biotech company Life Magnetics, and Johnnie Turnage of Evenscore, a software platform for civic engagement. 

“From the get-go, it wasn’t about winning the competition; it was about bringing in everyone’s expertise and life experience,” Turnage said. Standing backstage at Detroit’s historic Gem Theater was nerve-wracking, he said, but “the cool part is that we were supporting each other, rooting on the next team, telling them what to expect.”  

Post-competition, as the winning founders expand their businesses, they’re sharing resources and advice, supporting one another, and pursuing the additional funding necessary to get their winning idea off the ground. 

“Our collaborative energy has translated to the greater community surrounding us,” said Turnage, who has joined the planning committee for Michigan Tech Week’s 2023 event. “We’re all starting to ask: ‘Are we sharing leads?’ and ‘How are we sharing resources?’ This investment pays huge dividends.”