‘TechTown 2.0’ Expands Focus

TechTown has undergone some changes recently as Leslie Smith transitions into her new role as executive director. Nothing drastic, she says, but rather an expansion of its incubator business model to include targeted outreach to a few Detroit neighborhoods in order to make its entrepreneurial mission more accessible, an increased focus on microenterprise and procurement opportunities, and an increased partnership with nearby anchor institutions such as Henry Ford Hospital.

“We’ve come to understand that, in order to serve some of our constituents, we have to meet them where they are,” Smith says.

One thing TechTown plans to do is to increase its focus on connecting companies with procurement opportunities at the three anchor institutions in Midtown: Wayne State University, Henry Ford Hospital, and the Detroit Medical Center (DMC).

TechTown also wants to increase the number of high-growth IT companies in its portfolio from 20 percent to 3o percent. Smith says one way to do that is to commercialize more of the technology coming out of Henry Ford and the DMC.

“If there’s a new, innovative device or tool or process, we want to help commercialize that,” Smith says. “For example, Henry Ford has an Innovation Institute. We want to be on the receiving end of that pipeline.”

Smith says TechTown has doubled down on its commitment to help create a more vibrant city through stronger relationships with its local and regional partners. Part of that commitment involves going into communities with strong leaders and organizations already in place. Steve Tobocman, a former state legislator who has lately been spearheading the Global Detroit initiative, has been tapped to lead an effort to stabilize neighborhoods through a microenterprise training program geared towards immigrants and people of color.

Based on a model that was implemented successfully in the Twin Cities, the Detroit program will focus on the Southwest, North End, and predominantly Middle Eastern Cody/Rouge neighborhoods. The training program, which will last 20 weeks and have 10 to 15 participants each session, will be taught by a neighborhood stakeholder who shares the same cultural identity as class participants.

“The training program prepares people for the world of small business,” Tobocman says. “There’s actually an element of discouragement—we let them know that business owners tend to lose money and work 80 to 100 hours a week. It’s not a pathway to instant success.”

What owning a small business is a pathway to, Tobocman says, is community development and economic empowerment. In Minnesota, a lot of program participants are people running part-time, home-based businesses.

“We want to take the underground economy above ground,” Tobocman adds.

In addition to offering nine training sessions a year for three years, the program will include ongoing technical assistance as well as a microlending component, which Tobocman says will offer smaller, riskier loans than other Detroit entities.

“We’re turning the conventional wisdom on its head—the riskier the candidate for the loan, the more generous the terms,” Tobocman says. “There’s a greater tolerance for failure.”

Graduates of the classes who “really grow” will move on to TechTown’s FastTrac and Thrive programs.

“For us, the [neighborhood training] program is about creating job opportunities for all Detroiters,” Tobocman says.

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