Randal Charlton

Randal Charlton, a self-described serial entrepreneur, is executive director of TechTown at the north end of Wayne State University in Detroit’s New Center district. Over the last two years, TechTown’s offerings of business mentoring, consulting, incubation, and startup services have seemingly grown exponentially.
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Can you describe the scene at TechTown in terms of the companies that are operating and the services available to them?

We have 188 companies that call TechTown their headquarters. They vary from small startup companies that have taken a mailbox and share a computer terminal when available to those with a full suite of offices. The exciting thing is we have more than just tenants here. We have classes on a regular basis, and I was told last week that we’re leading the nation in entrepreneurial training programs. I also just got done talking to a class that wanted to get a perspective from a serial entrepreneur and hear my war stories. There are really a lot of exciting things going on, and we’re seeing people of all ages planning to set up new businesses here.

Are there some business sectors that dominate the startup arena?

Not really. We do have a high percentage of individuals that are looking to start up a company after exiting the auto industry. There are many with engineering backgrounds, but no one business sector dominates. There’s a real interest in supply-chain management, and that’s a reflection of the auto industry. On the other hand, we have companies in life sciences, alternative energy, biofuels, and companies that are looking at a greener way of doing things. There are also service companies like consulting or real-estate offerings. We have a number of companies in the IT space that are doing very well. And some companies are offering educational services to support teachers, or they’ve come up with clever ways to keep people engaged.

The original vision for TechTown as a research and technology park has evolved quite a bit to include schools, residential lofts, and retail. What other development opportunities are available in the 12-block district?

The plan for light rail (along Woodward Avenue, from downtown to New Center) is going to bring an enormous amount of foot traffic to TechTown. There’s also a provisional plan for Henry Ford Health System and Wayne State to collaborate on a major research center. When that gets built, we’ll have a lot more people with disposable income looking for good schools, lofts, and retail space. And we have all of that right here with our neighboring charter schools, the lofts, retail, and services. We’re also part of the creative corridor that major foundations like Kresge and Hudson-Webber are working on. The idea is for Cass to become a creative magnet from downtown to New Center. That will hopefully convince people who are in their 20s and 30s to say, “Hey, Detroit is a cool place.”

The TechOne Building, where TechTown got its start, is nearing capacity and a former Cadillac dealership has been purchased a block away for TechTwo. What’s the vision for the next phase of development?

We still have 16,000 square feet of space on the second floor of TechOne that we’re building out for stem-cell commercialization with the assistance of the federal government. The goal is to bring in laboratory research and figure out how to commercialize it. For the (Cadillac) space, we’re eager to fill that with more startup companies and other endeavors to create jobs, which is our main mission.

Given that TechTown’s genesis goes back more than 15 years, why have we seen more progress in the last five years than in the first 10?

Because of what’s happened in the economy. We’re on the front line of the war on the economy. If we could just get our unemployment numbers down to where the rest of the nation is, there would be block parties all over the city. But to get unemployment down, there are some big challenges ahead. There’s no other alternative than rapid growth. We really took off in the middle of last year. Up until that point, we were developing training and mentoring programs. Then we got a $5 million commitment from the New Economy Initiative, along with support from the Kauffman Foundation to help create new businesses, and since then we’ve really taken off. Before last summer, we had just fewer than 100 people signed up as potential entrepreneurs. Now that we have all of these services and support programs, combined with a very great need, we have 1,250 people signed up for our training programs. And 30 percent of the people are over 46 years old.  We offer space for training, technology transfer, mentors, interns, finance programs for early-stage loans, business services, and networking opportunities. The networking programs have really taken off over the last three or four months.

What synergies does TechTown share with the neighboring NextEnergy center, where a great deal of research is being done on alternative fuels and emerging power sources?

In one way, we’re quite different. They offer support to statewide initiatives in alternative energy, while our principle focus is to create jobs in Detroit. But on another level, we’re highly collaborative. They may need to borrow some of our space, or if we need a large gathering space, they have a great auditorium. We really see our relationship as an entrepreneurial family offering all sorts of collaborative programs.

What advice can you offer to entrepreneurs that are still in the research phase of introducing cutting edge technology?

A lot depends on where you’re starting. If you have limited resources, try to identify powerful partners that will support you. And make sure to give credit for the success you share along the way. When I got Asterand (a supplier of human tissues for drug discovery and development) started, I got a lot of help from the Karmanos Cancer Institute and Wayne State. Whenever I have the opportunity, I always recognize their contributions. If you continuously recognize the people who got you to where you are, you’ll be amazed on how that comes back to benefit you time and time again.

What’s the best way to start engaging with TechTown?

It’s simple. Just fill in an expression of interest on our Web site, www.techtownwsu.org. We also hold events like Fast Track to the Future, which are published on our site. We typically get 400 to 500 people and we offer a series of discussions about entrepreneurial programs. And after, we offer what can best be described as speed-dating for startup businesses. You go into another room and sit down with a mentor and describe your idea. The mentor might determine that a fast-track program is the way to go, or perhaps you’re ready for a two-year start-smart program. We fit the needs of the entrepreneur to our training programs, and we’re always looking at adding things that will support our mission of creating jobs. We want to help people meet and exceed their expectations.

Check out the accompanying podcast, hosted by our partner WJR 760AM.

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