By guest authors Irina Patterson and Praveen Karoshi
I am talking to Ebony Johnson, Entrepreneurial Programs Champion at TechTown, Detroit’s research and technology park. TechTown was established in 2000 by Wayne State University, General Motors, and the Henry Ford Health System with focus on emerging high-technology industries including advanced engineering, life sciences and alternative energy. The 12-block park includes TechOne, the 100,000-square-foot business incubator facility, which now hosts 70 growing companies.
Irina: Hi, Ebony. I love your title, Entrepreneurial Programs Champion. Could you tell us what you do?
Ebony: Essentially, what that means is that I am responsible for leading all of the entrepreneurial programming that we have, the training and development, the business coaching of the entrepreneurs that we support, the educational tracks that we run, and the mentors and volunteers that help build the ecosystem support.
I should say that we run our business incubator a lot differently from the way a lot of other incubators are run. We have a more than 100,000 square foot facility, and most business incubators are usually less than half that size. But we do focus on business development, training, and coaching, not just leasing space.
Irina: When was the incubator founded?
Ebony: Our papers were incorporated in 2000, but we opened our doors in 2004, so that is pretty much the date that everybody is familiar with.
Irina: Where are you based?
Ebony: We are in Detroit, Michigan. We’re just off Wayne State University campus, so we are associated with the university.
Irina: What are your ties with the university?
Ebony: They are a major stakeholder. The president of the university appoints the executive director of TechTown and is the president of our board of directors. A number of other university members are members of our board, so there is a strong affiliation with the university, but we are our own separate 501(c)(3).
Irina: Do you have any particular industry preference?
Ebony: We are what is called a mixed use incubator, so we work with a lot of different companies. But as far as the programming is concerned, which is the heart of what we do, we focus on key industry sectors.
And those include the creative sector industry, folks around arts and entertainment. There is a big initiative in Detroit and southeast Michigan in that area, and we also have a lot of artistic organizations surrounding us.
Also, logistics and supply chain management. With Detroit being accessible by air and train and pointing in a lot of different areas, the logistics and supply chain management industry is what we want to focus on. Other areas of our focus are advanced manufacturing, alternative energy, and life sciences.
Irina: How many of your clients are IT-based companies?
Ebony: Maybe around 10%. But I could be completely off on that; we haven’t updated our data numbers yet. We just took in a lot of new clients.
We do a lot of startup programming, so a lot of them don’t necessarily have a real office space yet. They are leasing space in the building, but as far as their intent, yes, it is more brick-and-mortar type of companies.
Our clients can choose to pay a membership fee and take advantage of what we call THRIVE program. [Based on the entrepreneur’s business stage of development and entrepreneurial experience, THRIVE offers coaching, mentoring, entrepreneurs-in-residence, industry experts, subject matter experts, workshops and forums, capital overview and connections, physical space, and networking.] Entrepreneurs can just pay a minimum membership fee and take advantage of difference services we have without being a tenant in the building.
Irina: What are your minimum fees?
Ebony: Because we have some funding from a Michigan organization called NEI, or New Economy initiative, we supplement it and charge them only $50. It is a special introductory offering, but that price will change in the future.
Irina: Fifty dollars for how long?
Ebony: For six months of services. Otherwise, we put on different ad hoc workshops that anybody can come to. They are about $10 a workshop or event.
Irina: At what stage would you suggest a company apply for incubation in your program?
Ebony: In our program, we do work with a lot of start up companies. Anywhere from the novice to launch to growth space to development as far as their product and services are concerned, and we work with both novice entrepreneurs and serial entrepreneurs.