By Leslie Mertz
The wheels are turning at TechTown Detroit, one of the city’s most established non-profit business accelerators/incubators. Located on the north end of Wayne State University’s Detroit campus, TechTown was launched in 2007 to provide entrepreneurial services for tech companies and neighborhood enterprises, helping startups and established businesses develop, launch and grow.
Three of TechTown’s noted programs include:
• DTX Launch Detroit, designed to retain and develop the state’s best and brightest entrepreneurial talent.
• TechTown Business Incubator Center (TBIC), which helps established, early-stage tech companies identify critical steps for commercialization and strategic growth.
• TechTown BLOCKS programming and services, designed to help businesses grow.
DTX Launch Detroit
TechTown’s DTX Launch Detroit “is a 10-week, intensive, student-focused, summer accelerator program that recruits Michigan college students and recent graduates who are willing to build a tech-based venture or business in the state,” says Paul Riser, managing director of technology-based entrepreneurship at TechTown.
DTX Launch Detroit helps students understand the work involved in transforming an idea into a business.
“Our young entrepreneurs often don’t understand the journey involved. It’s about more than having an interesting idea, having an uncle or a cousin tell you it’s great, and then waiting for the venture capital funds to start rolling in. It just doesn’t happen that way,” Riser says.
The program instructs students in designing, testing and evaluating their value proposition; conducting considerable amounts of customer discovery, matching the solution to the needs of their market; building a coachable and collegial team and pitching their company to investors or potential customers.
Although only in its fourth year, DTX Launch Detroit has several successes, according to Riser.
“One is City Insights, which was founded by a Wayne State student. It started out as an internet-enabled, connected water-filtration accessory, and grew into an app that allows consumers to gauge their water use, set goals, and receive tips about how to reduce consumption,” Riser says.
The City of Detroit recognized the app’s benefits toward achieving improved customer relations and became a customer. Now, the company is preparing to pursue interests from other municipalities and cities around the country.
Another success story is a startup called Evolve Lifestyle Group, founded by three DTX Launch Detroit graduates. The company rolled out Pro:Up, which matches students with educational and professional growth opportunities, like summer programs, internships, and jobs while helping those opportunity providers reach out to a highly targeted and relevant audience.
Thousands of students and dozens of program providers are using Pro:Up, which has won numerous awards and competitions, helping the company raise the capital to build its platform.
The benefits of DTX Launch Detroit go beyond the startups themselves, Riser says.
“The point of DTX Launch Detroit is to plant that seed of entrepreneurship, while providing the students with true differentiating skills, whether the student continues as an entrepreneur, joins another startup’s team or goes back to the private sector in corporate America. Our students gain a set of skills they can bring to the table to increase their value, no matter what they do in life.”
TechTown Business Incubation Center
A major value of TBIC is to help entrepreneurs take a hard, honest look at their business model.
“Often, entrepreneurs come to us with the belief that they are ready for the market. In reality they may be a few steps away from what the market really demands, so one of our major facets is driven around this notion of customer discovery, and having the market validate an entrepreneur’s hypothesis of what an industry wants, or what consumers want,” Riser says.
That means encouraging and assisting entrepreneurs in sitting down with customers to test and ultimately gain a keen understanding of the market they hope to address. Entrepreneurs are then able to build on what they’ve learned, adapt and proceed with a much more solid approach.
“One of the things that makes TechTown truly unique as a business incubator and accelerator is that we support local businesses that don’t have tech as a core function,” says Riser. “In the Blocks program, we might have a restaurant, a family furniture store or a small retail business participating.
The TechTown Blocks program is designed to help aspiring entrepreneurs capitalize on great concepts and opportunities, subsequently helping transform underserved neighborhoods into vibrant communities with thriving business districts. In the Blocks program, entrepreneurs learn practical skills in everything from employee management, to branding and marketing, business financials, the key role of an architect and more. The idea is to help entrepreneurs boost their Detroit-based business to greater success.
TechTown programming impact, 2015
• 210 companies served
• 320 jobs retained
• 19 companies created
• 42 jobs created
• $5,579,645 leveraged by companies served