Damien Rocchi

The Co-Founder and CEO of Grand Circus, a tech training, co-working, and event-hosting institute in the heart of Detroit, Damien Rocchi, is helping to elevate the local tech community while preparing the next generation of digital entrepreneurs.

Damien Rocchi

Co-Founder and CEO
Grand Circus, Detroit

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With the success of Detroit Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in emerging technology companies, Damien Rocchi saw an opportunity. Working with co-founder Bradley Hoos, the pair launched Grand Circus last year on three floors in Detroit’s Broderick Tower. Their business offers co-working space for entrepreneurs, tech training, and educational programs. Detroit Venture Partners, located next door in the Madison Building, is the lead investor in Grand Circus (the name reflects neighboring Grand Circus Park). “I was doing work for one of the Detroit Venture Partners portfolio companies and was introduced to (partners) Josh Linkner and Jake Cohen, and they were looking to get more tech training going in the city as well as preparing the next generation of code writers and digital entrepreneurs, and Grand Circus was born,” says Rocchi, a native of Australia. Launched last year, the nonprofit saw its 15,000-square-foot space fill up almost overnight. Demand for tech training proved to be a hit, as well.

How does Grand Circus differ from Detroit Venture Partners?
Detroit Venture Partners invests in seed and early-stage companies, helps them grow, and when they are large enough and ready, they move into other parts of the city. It’s been very successful. We saw an opportunity to complement what they do by offering co-working space (for 50 entrepreneurs), which is all spoken for. We also offer a public curriculum — or what most people know as classes — to launch a business, or perhaps someone is curious about something. We also deliver custom training for much larger companies, and we offer community programs where we work with Detroit Public Schools and Osborne High School to provide (students with) training such as writing code.

How did you get started?
I grew up in Melbourne and when I first got out of college in the mid-1990s I was consulting as part of Michigan National Bank’s acquisition by National Australia Bank. That brought me to Farmington Hills, which is where I met my wife. We lived here a few years before I attended the Wharton School (in Philadelphia) for my MBA. After that, we went back to Australia and started a family. I had worked in a number of corporate roles; the last one was with Fairfax Business Media (in Australia), where I had responsibility for a group of digital businesses within their publishing division. In 2009, my wife was keen to come back to Michigan. At that time, I had a lot of experience around building businesses, albeit in much larger environments. So I started consulting again (in metro Detroit), but this time it was with much smaller companies — and that’s when I met Josh and Jake.

What did it take to start the operation?
We started up last February (2013) by constructing the team and getting the curriculum ready, and we started classes in September. Since then, we’ve had a tremendous response in terms of enrollment. We’ve also announced a number of partnerships, including one with Google. We were selected as one of seven (national) hubs. We also have a partnership with Automation Alley (in Troy), where we have great reach into their membership base. We have 50 entrepreneurs (in Grand Circus), Automation Alley also has space in the building, and in addition to the co-working space, we have a casual space. Most of the entrepreneurs are in the digital space and software space, (where they) build businesses for the Web and mobile (applications).

How did it go with Google?
We were just with Google in California (in late March). They had the Google for Entrepren­eurs Demo Day for each of the seven hubs. We had a local competition and we traveled with the startup in Detroit (that won the competition), so we were out there with the other seven hubs. It was really great. (As part of the partnership with Google), they provide technology for our startup space, they do mentoring, they do events — it’s really a multidimensional program. We were at Google with iRule, (which developed a universal remote to connect various gadgets), but they didn’t win the main prize. Still, iRule received $100,000 (along with the other participating companies) from Steve Case, (co-founder of AOL and chairman and CEO of Revolution). It was just a super event and offered incredible exposure.

What’s coming in the future?
Our public curriculum is just about to finish the semester, and we have a lot of custom programs to launch, including one that is an innovation accelerator. We’re real excited about getting traction with companies to bring an innovation mindset to their activities. We’re talking to a number of schools to offer a program like we do with Osborne. We teach students how to code and develop (digital programs), and then there is a career track where they get to work with a company like Google. They get a sense of how to work with a developer. We’ll do more of that, which could lead to internships. But we’re working on awareness right now, especially for students with the right mindset. There’s pent-up demand for talent (in the digital space), so we’re trying to add to the supply. We’re looking (at adding programs) for middle schools, high schools, and even the adult workforce space. It’s exciting.