TechTown, which over the years had evolved into more of an incubator for general lifestyle businesses than for whiz-bang science, is getting back to its roots.
The Wayne State University-affiliated incubator in Detroit’s Midtown has launched several programs that will train and support tech startups, is about to undergo a $1.2 million build-out of dedicated tech incubation space and has lured a veteran of technology development away from Connecticut to oversee its efforts.
Call it — what else? — TechTown 2.0, a rebranding that has drawn praise from state officials and others in the local tech scene.
“It’s nice to see TechTown get back to its roots and bring on some real strong talent. This is a smart move,” said Martin Dober, senior vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
In December, TechTown hired Charlie Moret as managing director of entrepreneurial programs. He had spent 13 years at Rocky Hill, Conn.-basedConnecticut Innovations, a provider of support services for emerging technology companies.
Moret also ran a $20 million seed fund for startups and started CTech, an incubator at Connecticut Innovations affiliated with Yale University and the University of Connecticut.
TechTown soon will begin building out about 35,000 square feet on the first and second floors of the 135,000-square-foot building on Burroughs Street. The structure opened in 1927 as a service department for Pontiac and decades later was where the Corvette was designed.
There are already programs under way or planned.
• In February, TechTown secured a two-year grant of $1 million from the MEDC to form the Detroit Technology Exchange. TechTown’s partners in the joint venture are Bizdom, an incubator founded by Dan Gilbert and based in the Madison Building in downtown Detroit; and Invest Detroit, a group of funds created by Business Leaders for Michigan.
The grant called for the program to create 15 companies. The exchange includes Launch Detroit, an intensive 10-week summer boot camp open to undergraduate and graduate students in Michigan who want to launch tech-based companies. Successful graduates could incubate the companies at TechTown or Bizdom and be eligible for funding from Detroit Innovate, a $5 million seed fund recently launched by Invest Detroit.
It also includes an executive-in-residence program to fund salaries for six months or a year for executives who will help turn intellectual property into companies; and DTX Fellows, which will pay the salary of experienced executives to join new companies for up to two years.
• Last Friday, TechTown closed applications for a 12-week program called Labs Venture Accelerator, a boot camp for budding entrepreneurs who will be expected to work 100-plus hours a week refining their business plans, marketing their would-be products and getting a range of coaching.
A panel of angel investors, successful entrepreneurs and TechTown partners will select 10-12 of the best applications, with the spring session starting April 8. A fall session will begin in September.
Two or three participants from each session are expected to move on to new incubation space in TechTown.
• Starting in April, Moret will hold office hours for would-be tech entrepreneurs on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, when they can get free advice and help with networking.
Tom Anderson, a senior director at Troy-based Automation Alley, was one of those pushing the Detroit incubator to get back to its roots. He also helped recruit Moret.
“I interviewed him,” Anderson said. “Charlie’s got a great background; he’s a real asset. Charlie’s focus is on helping early-stage tech entrepreneurs get customer validation and win customer acceptance.”
TechTown had more needs than just filling space. It also had to pay its mortgage, and that was easier by attracting a range of tenants than just those in early-stage technology. TechTown became a landlord for many growing lifestyle and retail companies. Most of its 62 current tenants have nothing to do with technology.
“We had to take side roads because of the economy,” said Leslie Smith, TechTown’s president and CEO, explaining the incubator’s evolving into a general business support organization.
“We got disconnected from our original mission, except for TechTown continuing to be an economic driver in the city of Detroit. But we’re convinced our mortgage responsibility has to balance with our tech vision.”
Tom Henderson, Crain’s Detroit Business.