TechTown Starts 2014 With $2.5M Renovation, New Co-Working Space

More changes are afoot at TechTown as the startup accelerator streamlines its mission and prepares to anchor neighborhood construction that could make North Midtown a serious hub of innovation.

Most striking to visitors is the $2.5 million renovation that TechTown completed in late November. The space has been transformed from a drab, nondescript office to one with bright colors and an open layout that could give the widely praised Madison Building a run for its money.

Previously, TechTown was somewhat mysteriously relegated to upper floors of the building at 440 Burroughs in Detroit. Now, the lobby has been expanded and spiffed up in order to not only house TechTown’s offices, but also a new co-working space called Junction 440, a state-of-the-art communal kitchen that will be used to test pop-up food startups, meeting and event spaces, and a lounge area.

“We’ve been kind of busy bees in 2013,” says TechTown’s executive director, Leslie Smith. “We’re really excited. Opening this space was the physical representation of all the work we’ve done in the last few years.”

Smith also calls the renovations a “catalytic project” as it relates to a coming district plaza, the construction of which is already underway. This summer, the parking lot outside of TechTown will be converted to a pocket park, complete with outdoor dining, movable furniture, an “interactive wall” with the charter school next door, and a pop-up store operating out of an old shipping container. The back wall of the co-working space will also open up to the park.

Smith says the goal is to extend the park’s vibrant color scheme across Burroughs so that it starts to feel more like a campus than a city block. Also helping to unify the neighborhood is Wayne State University’s $93 million biomedical research facility in an old Cadillac dealership on Cass Avenue, which should be completed by 2015. “Suddenly, the district plan is coming together, which gives more legs to our neighborhood work,” Smith says.

Regarding that neighborhood work, TechTown has taken the lead among the other local startup incubators in nurturing entrepreneurs who live outside the bubble of downtown and Midtown. After seeing its local impact, TechTown has expanded its successful SWOT City program to five Detroit neighborhoods: Brightmoor, Grandmont Rosedale, Focus HOPE, Jefferson East, and Osborn.

Smith characterizes 2013 as a year of “pure execution” at TechTown. Early in the year, the organization decided to separate its programs for brick-and-mortar companies and tech startups . For tech startups, there’s the 12-week Labs Venture Accelerator program, which is offered twice a year. A summertime version of the accelerator called Launch Detroit is offered to student-led startups.

“The Launch Detroit program has brought all of this youth and enthusiasm to the building,” Smith says. “We’ve been able to do cool things even with companies that have failed; we move the more talented team members to other startup opportunities. That’s the nirvana goal: to move people to the next startup after failure.”

Though it may have taken a few years to find its identity, Smith says she’s happy with where TechTown is today and the growth of Detroit’s overall innovation ecosystem. “It’s starting to be more authentic—we’re not sitting in our silos pissing at each other, and that’s because it’s better for all of us and it’s better for our clients,” she says.

What helped, in Smith’s opinion, was focus—and realizing that there is room for everyone in the city to choose a lane and excel.

“We went through that period of trying to be all things to all people, and then we took a deep, inward look at what’s happening now that wasn’t happening when we started,” she says. “Now, I feel we’re adding value without being duplicative. We’re right where we belong.”

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