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From Motown to TechTown

Much has been made in recent months about the gloomy economic landscape in Detroit. Based on double-digit unemployment statistics, Michigan and its auto-based economy have been at the epicenter of the Great Recession.

We are pleased to report that the denizens of Motown are not wasting time dwelling on the drumbeat of bad news. They are busy laying the foundation for a Renaissance of economic development.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than at TechTown, a thriving research and technology park established by Wayne State University, General Motors and the Henry Ford Health System.

TechTown, part of the Woodward Technology Corridor SmartZone, aims to become nothing less than the world’s foremost business incubator for emerging high-tech industries including advanced engineering, life sciences and alternative energy.

Here are some highlights:

– TechOne, the 100,000-square-foot business incubator facility, now hosts 70 growing companies.

– More than 30 high-tech startups have enrolled in TechTown’s business accelerator programs.

– NextEnergy, an alternative energy incubator founded to encourage the commercialization of emerging energy technologies, opened its $12-million research facility in TechTown.

– Asterand, a biomaterials bank and TechTown’s first tenant, has become an international, publicly traded company on the London Stock Exchange.

What began as a 12-acre research park is now spread over 43 acres. Wayne State University has laid the groundwork for further expansion by purchasing the former Dalgleish Cadillac building on Cass Avenue for $1 million. The building was constructed in 1902 as the first Cadillac plant, and the Dalgleish family has been selling Cadillacs there since 1964. The dealership building, which was closed by General Motors is 30,000 square feet larger than TechOne, TechTown’s current business incubator facility at 440 Burroughs Street.

TechTown deferred plans to renovate another large former Cadillac building just a block south of the Dalgleish Cadillac—the Cadillac sales headquarters, known more recently as the Wayne State University Criminal Justice Building. The building, originally planned to be TechTwo, would cost more than $10 million to renovate. “It’s a beautiful old building and it will be phenomenal when we ever get it finished, but we can’t do it now,” TechTown Executive Director Randal Charlton said.

The 107-year-old, three-story former auto plant with a large basement will be made into office and lab space to meet the needs of both new and existing companies looking to set up shop in an affordable business environment. The TechOne facility has kept a waiting list of potential tenants, some of whom have taken FastTrac entrepreneurial training courses, which are the keystone of the FastTrac to the Future project created by the New Economy Initiative in partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Many former auto workers are among the entrepreneurs who are making use of the resources of TechTown. Sunday’s edition of the New York Times profiled Aaron Ellison, who spent 18 years working at a Ford assembly plant but is now the owner of two-year-old Ellison Corp., which designs and markets a patented traffic signaling system from an office at TechTown.

Linking Detroit’s past and future is a key element of TechTown’s mission, says Executive Director Charlton.

“This is a city that is used to making things,” Charlton told the Times. “And whether it’s engineering or sculpture or furniture or whatever, the way to use our assets, which are lots of empty factory space, is to identify new products we can manufacture and add value to.”

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