Area Entrepreneurs Launch Detroit Venture Partners To Turn Motown Into A Tech and Innovation Hub

We’ve written about a number of investors and nonprofits looking to attract and keep companies in Michigan as a way to help the state’s economy kick back into gear. But Detroit Venture Partners is looking to go a bit further. The brand new venture firm wants its portfolio companies to move their operations right into the heart of Detroit, in the hopes of transforming the Motor City into a vibrant startup community like Boston and San Francisco, says CEO and managing partner Josh Linkner.

“We’ll strongly encourage people to move their business into the city of Detroit,” he says. “In Boston there is a great ecosystem and we’re trying to create something similar where companies play off each other. As we fund companies, we’re trying to build something in the heart of Detroit.”

The firm officially opened its doors on November 1st, with a few other heavy hitters working alongside Linkner, who founded and ran Detroit-based interactive promotional marketing firm ePrize, before moving to a chairman role this year. Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is also on board as a general partner of DVP, as is Brian Hermelin, founder and chairman of growth equity firm Rockbridge and chairman of Active Aero, a provider of Web-based systems for air charter management. The latter two were investors in ePrize, Linkner says.

DVP could help transform Gilbert’s vision of turning Detroit main drag Woodward Avenue into a tech hub known as “WEBward” Ave a reality. He’s already populated the strip with Quicken and a number of subsidiaries owned by the company. The DVP team’s experience in building winning companies is thick, and it intends on playing an active part in the companies it funds, looking more like a full-time, always on-call tech support staff, rather than distant funders. “We’ve all done it and been there before,” Linkner says. “We know what it’s like to bump up against limits, having gone through this multiple times. We think the biggest value we can actually bring is our entrepreneurial experience.”

Detroit Venture Partners is looking to close between six and eight deals next year, and will kick that range up to 10 to 15 deals in 2012, Linkner says. Each check will initially be worth between $250,000 and $750,000, but the firm could pump a total of $2 million to $3 million into each company in its portfolio, counting follow-on rounds. Its first couple of deals could come as early as January and February, Linkner says.

Michigan entrepreneurs have identified the lack of early stage financing as a big obstacle to growth in the region, and DVP is looking to turn this around. At present, the firm is investing with the founders’ own capital, but has its sights on raising outside capital from LPs in the future. “Our goal is to become a significant venture investor in the region,” Linkner says. “We’re not looking to be dabblers.”

Nor is DVP looking to invest in just any startup in Detroit; it’s focused specifically on early stage Web and mobile tech companies and is staying away from investments in cleantech, computer chips, and manufacturing. The big goal is growing Web 2.0 companies so that Detroit can become a place known for those industries, much like San Francisco and Boston.

Linkner says the team is inspired by the success of Chicago-based social buying giant Groupon, which shows a company “doesn’t have to be on a coast” to become a top name in technology. “The question is: how can we can we use the resources and talent that are in this region and enjoy similar types of success?” he says.

Linkner, Gilbert, and Hermelin all know each other from the Detroit business and entrepreneurial community—an entity that Linkner says has a lot of untapped potential. “I think we’ve got all the right ingredients, we just need some connective tissue,” he says.

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