Detroit is the Motor City. Its very foundation is rooted in collaboration. Detroit is also mobility, tech, big business, and startup entrepreneurs embedded in the community, coming up with innovative solutions to evergreen problems. Playing off this collaborative ecosystem has become crucial for those attempting to revitalize the region, most notably by Paul Riser, Director of Urban Solutions for TechTown.
Detroitisit has partnered with Ford Motor Company to bring you stories about the individuals, businesses, and organizations working to take our city into the future. In this multi-part series, we hear from leaders, innovators, founders, and stakeholders on ways they integrate their missions and knowledge in the image of the city’s landscape.
THE EARLY DAYS OF TECHTOWN
TechTown, founded in 2000 through a joint collaboration between Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System and General Motors, was started initially as a way to support tech-based startups and businesses from Wayne State. Soon after, it began its journey into what today is a catalyst for startups to strengthen communities in surrounding neighborhoods and work with small businesses across the region.
TechTown started to move beyond its origination as an initial incubation and coworking space. It began to stage itself as a center for innovation and collaboration in an ever-changing Detroit market. With collaborators, the organization aimed to create an innovation zone that synthesized the fields of financial technology [fintech], water tech, mobility, music, and healthcare. This idea came to the forefront five years ago, before the development of the sports mecca of District Detroit, and at a time when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and city officials were looking to find progressive ways to interconnect the economic development of Downtown Detroit with the midtown area around Wayne State.
“As TechTown worked to place focus on various tech verticals, we identified an opportunity to play a different role in the tech ecosystem – especially given that Detroit was evolving into a much different position than it was five years ago. Five years ago, Mayor Duggan called about a dozen and a half leaders together from Midtown to Downtown to look at how we can build out an innovative district in the city,” states Riser. “So there was no question of if Detroit would reemerge and be on its feet again in a really strong position, but how do we diversify, how do we create an innovative district, and how do we create more density between Downtown assets and northern pockets?”
ECONOMIC CLUSTERS AND INVESTMENT
According to Riser, the Detroit region is an automotive cluster, an area of economic development rooted in all aspects of one type of production. In the case of Detroit, given that the automotive industry plays such a massive role throughout the region, creating jobs in multiple sectors all come back to a single job market.
“There are various economic clusters around the U.S. and Detroit has an automotive cluster focused on manufacturing, interconnected supply chains, and distribution centers. When combining these, you create massive economic developments and zones that offer new jobs, wage increases, and the ability to compete in a market,” Riser states.
Riser built off of this idea, describing Michigan as a new center for other smaller clusters.
“Michigan and the surrounding region have additional opportunity zones as we see them, mainly around, water tech, mobility, transportation, and health care.”
Since that time, the Midtown and Downtown area has seen massive economic investment, as organizations like TechTown worked to bring in compatible partners that align with their main innovative focuses. One company, in particular, was Ford Motor Company. Riser particularly praised Ford for the way in which they have gone about involving the Detroit community in their efforts to transform mobility, a field that aligns with the goals TechTown is working to synthase.
“I believe Ford is somewhat of a pioneer, I like their risk-taking appetite, I like the fact that they put their resources where their mouth is, and I like the fact that they have thoughtfully tried and upheld a number of conversations where they’ve involved community stakeholders in conversation about what this could be and what it could be.” shared Riser, “This is not new for Ford, being here at Techtown, we were able to help with Techstars entry into the city of Detroit, of which Ford was the lead partner.”
THE FUTURE OF TECHTOWN AND REGIONAL COLLABORATION
While working to gain international investment with the end goal of establishing an innovation district in Detroit, Riser is betting on the collaborative nature of partnerships. This collaboration will see partners working together through projects to address growth aspects for the city, such as transportation, mobility, healthcare, music and fintech, with the end goal being the establishment of Detroit as a smarter city.
This is a multi-step process; one which incorporates multiple aspects of the region.
“It’s people, and it’s community, it’s projects, it’s evolution, (in our) journey toward becoming a smarter city. You want to continuously become a smarter city, a more efficient and managed city, a more safe and secure city, all these elements are what we’re trying to bring together,” Riser shared. “We build on not only the work that we’ve done in those sectors of the tech space but also TechTown is uniquely positioned because we built the community trust based on place-based entrepreneurial programming where we work with small businesses in neighborhoods.”
When discussing the future of the Detroit region, Riser brought up an often overlooked aspect, sharing, “It’s rarely shared that in southeastern Michigan we’re leveraging what a lot of people don’t think of or capitalize on — the fact that we are sitting twenty minutes away from Canada. When you think of an international destination or location, there is a whole different set of awesome assets of eager entrepreneurs of partners, stakeholders, private sector organizations who want to contribute to some of the opportunities that we have here domestically, and vice versa.”
The option for collaboration with Canada could prove itself valid when looking into innovations around healthcare and other issues that impact the Detroit region. Allowing for cross-collaboration between two countries, and the city of Detroit and Windsor, the area has become the model of the collaborative nature that TechTown holds close to its values.