City Snapshot: TechTown Detroit

Beyond the common stock-image stereotype applied to the “tech scene,” each ecosystem has its own unique set of opportunities and challenges. City Snapshot offers a magnified look at a select community’s work and hustle.

This content was contributed by CEO, Ned Staebler.

Tell us a bit about tech in your city. What is Detroit’s culture like, and how does it shape the tech ecosystem?
Detroit is a beautiful place. Detroit is a difficult place. We have world-class cultural institutions, a gorgeous riverfront and an incredibly strong sense of community. We also have more than our fair share of abandoned buildings and, like every urban area in the US, a struggling public education system and high crime. What I love about the city’s entrepreneurs is that they see both sides of the coin, and they are neither discouraged nor opportunistic. They want to dive in and see where they fit and how they can help.

What’s special about the tech scene in your city, that isn’t offered by other tech communities? What is a strength of the city’s ecosystem that often goes unrecognized?
Detroit is a great place to experiment, because there is less risk if you fail. That’s largely because the cost of living and doing business is still affordable here. You can test an idea, and it won’t break you if it doesn’t work out. But beyond that, we’re a very supportive community with a long history of resilience. And we’re problem-solvers. Our tech community is really committed to tackling some of the challenges of the city — and the country and world — in incredibly thoughtful ways. Just here at TechTown, we’ve got apps that link urban youth to mentorship opportunities and caregivers to qualified respite care, a biometric gun lock, a hybrid electric drive system. And that’s just for starters. Detroit is becoming a center for tech-based social innovation, especially around health care, and I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg now.

What would you like to see more of in the tech ecosystem in your city? Which initiatives, advancements, etc.?
We’re seeing a steady increase in the amount of venture capital invested in Detroit and Michigan companies. But there is still room for improvement. Recent reports estimate that the state will need close to $300 million more than is currently available over the next two years to support portfolio companies. But I’m confident those numbers will change in that time frame as interest in Detroit continues to grow. I think Detroit is ahead of the curve in terms of diversity in the tech sector. But this is another area where we can — and must — continue to do more.

How would you describe TechTown’s role in your city’s tech ecosystem? Where do you fit in?
TechTown is a true community hub. On any given day, you can come here and see startups and small businesses of all kinds — tech, consultancies, creative firms, media, nonprofits — all working in our Junction 440 co-working space while, steps away, foundations, investors and companies large and small are meeting in our event space. We’ve got more than 50 community-serving businesses as tenants here. Our building is designed to encourage those spontaneous interactions that move businesses forward. I can’t tell you how many ideas have been born, startups formed, deals made here. What’s really important about TechTown is that we also bring our expertise and energy out into the community. We have staff working with local businesses across the city, making sure that the momentum we’re seeing downtown and in Midtown extends out into the neighborhoods.

Which other organizations in the city do you collaborate with?
I think another hallmark of Detroit’s tech scene is its incredibly collaborative spirit, so our partners are really too numerous to mention. We have a formal collaboration, known as the Detroit Technology Exchange, with Invest Detroit, the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, the Henry Ford Innovation Institute, NextEnergy and Techstars Mobility, driven by Detroit. It is supported by the Michigan Economic Development Corp’s Michigan Strategic Fund and the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan. The mission of DTX is to recruit and groom talent for tech entrepreneurship opportunities and convert innovative technologies into Detroit-based startups.

What do you think Detroit will look like in 5 years?
Detroit is in a remarkable period of transition right now, and currently, the bulk of the investment is in the downtown core. But you can’t have a seven-square-mile oasis in a 140-square-mile city and think you’re going to have prosperity. It doesn’t work like that, and I think more and more people with the power to change this paradigm are realizing that. So in five years, I think we’re going to have a continued tech renaissance, with a focus on technology aimed at solving real-life problems. At the same time, we’re going to start to see a revival in some of our neighborhoods that have really suffered from decades in disinvestment — both in the residential areas and along the commercial corridors.

This article is contributed by Ned Staebler - CEO, TechTown Detroit & VP of Economic Development, Wayne State University.

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