Ned Staebler, a Detroit native, was recently named President, TechTown Detroit, while maintaining responsibilities as Wayne State University’s Vice President, Economic Development.
Prior to joining Wayne State in 2011, Stabler served as vice president for capital access and business acceleration at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation where he oversaw the Michigan Strategic Fund and led the investment and management of $600 million in state funds into entrepreneurial companies, venture capital and private equity funds, and strategic service providers.
I recently asked Staebler for his thoughts on TechTown’s vision, its focus on neighborhood revitalization and its role with local police in focusing on public safety.
Lee: You were recently named TechTown’s President & CEO while remaining Wayne State University’s Vice President, Economic Development. What benefit do you see with the closer relationship between WSU and TechTown?
Staebler: Wayne State has supported TechTown since founding it, in partnership with General Motors and Henry Ford Health System, more than a decade ago. This closer relationship enables us to really assess our complementary efforts and sharpen the focus. For instance, how can TechTown’s SWOT City program partner with Wayne State’s Detroit Revitalization Fellows to leverage our work in the neighborhoods? How can we uniteall our entrepreneurship efforts, like Blackstone LaunchPad, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, the Anderson Engineering Ventures Institute and all the TechTown services so there is a continuum from the student venture to the spinoff to the second stage business planning significant growth?
Our efforts are so in line as it is, it’s really a no brainer to bring them under one umbrella, align them more closely and deepen the impact.
Lee: Is it an adjustment managing these two critical roles?
Staebler: Not as much as you would think. Our office already worked closely with TechTown and, again, the programs are so complementary. it’s really a matter of honing in on those synergies and making sure all the right people continue to strategize together.
Lee: What direction would you like to see TechTown go and what are the organization’s key strategic priorities over the next 12 months?
Staebler: We’ll continue to assert TechTown’s role as Detroit’s most established incubator and accelerator, serving an incredibly diverse group of entrepreneurs and businesses in neighborhoods across the city. We’re going to better integrate our services and strengthen collaborations with our partners who support small businesses. We want everyone from the neighborhood coffee house to the high-tech spinoff to have a more streamlined experience, and we want to support more businesses on the continuum through development, launch and growth. We’re working to make tech commercialization from Wayne State and Henry Ford Health System more seamless and to create a more structured incubation program. We’re sharpening our focus on urban entrepreneurship—bringing for-profit business models and technology to bear in addressing urban challenges.
Most importantly, we’re continuing our commitment to neighborhood economic development, through programs like SWOT City and Retail Boot Camp, because you can’t have a seven-square-mile oasis in a 140-square-mile city and think you’re going to have prosperity. It doesn’t work like that.
Lee: You also believe Detroit can become the next Silicon Valley. What’s driving your belief this can happen and what must Detroit continue to do achieve and/or exceed Silicon Valley’s status in the technology space?
Staebler: Detroit is not like anyplace else. We don’t want to be Silicon Valley, and that’s OK. It’s great, actually. We’re going to be Detroit, a great American city. Do we have the know-how and ability to develop cutting-edge software? Absolutely! The differences between auto manufacturing and technology development are radically blurring. A modern high-end car has up to 100 million lines of code—that’s more than Facebook, Windows or a fighter jet. Domino’s Pizza receives 25 percent of their orders via their new app, which was developed at Detroit Labs. GM filed 592 software patents over the past five years. So clearly we have the know-how and the vision in that space.
We also have one of the largest and most diverse concentrations of engineers in the country. We can prototype anything here! Our life sciences and health care sectors are particularly robust, and we’re also leading innovations in commerce, international trade and education, to name a few. We’re both a big city and a small town, which means start-up costs here are low yet resources are readily available. That also means it’s easier to access investors and clients, and attract media attention, which is a huge advantage. Bottom line, this is where you need to be. We’ll be different and, in some ways,better than Silicon Valley.
Lee: And what will it take to attract talent in order for Detroit to effectively complete with Silicon Valley?
Staebler: We need to attract talent, yes, but also make sure the talent already here has all the educational opportunities and support they need to compete. We’re on a great trajectory, with five VCs and 100 startups headquartered in Detroit now. Detroit has one of the highest populations of STEM grads and STEM jobs in the nation. We need to continue that momentum. But we also need to keep being who we are. One of Detroit’s biggest assets is the fact that everyone has the opportunity have an impact. So we need to keep saying to talent of all ages: come here, stay here, return here and really make your mark.
Lee: There’s been significant discussion regarding redeveloping Detroit’s neighborhoods and the role entrepreneurs will have in these efforts. TechTown has a program, SWOT City, focused on small business development. What is it and why is it important for neighborhood development?
Staebler: SWOT City partners with community organizations in seven neighborhoods–Brightmoor, East Jefferson, Grandmont Rosedale, Hope Village, Osborn, University District and Southwest Detroit. Over the course of a deep, three-year engagement, SWOT City staff assesses the current state of stability in the neighborhood, looking at such factors as business climate, employment, safety, education, housing and civic engagement. Then, we work with our partners to develop a comprehensive stabilization and growth strategy, and link neighborhood businesses to programs and services offered through TechTown and our partners.
To see the impact of SWOT City, look no further than some of your favorite local small businesses. Our clients include Sweet Potato Sensations, Motor City Java House, Good Cakes and Bakes, Detroit Fiber Works, Rose’s Fine Food, Sister Pie and Paramita Sound.
Lee: Another program is the Retail Boot Camp effort. What is it and what is TechTown hoping to achieve with this particular program?
Staebler: Our Retail Boot Camp also addresses the need to strengthen neighborhood business districts. It’s a really intensive series of classes, coupled with one-on-one support, that prepares Detroit-based entrepreneurs with strong retail concepts for the successful launch of their brick-and-mortar business. At the end of the eight-week program, we conduct a “Draft Day,” where graduates are awarded prize packages, such as a point-of-sale system or pro-bono professional services. Those deemed most ready to launch will receive a subsidized permanent or pop-up space. Our next session starts in September and applications are open through July 31.
Lee: Clearly, Midtown is a booming area with new housing and economic development. What efforts are underway to improve the overall climate for those wanting to relocate or start a business there. In other words, as the population and the number of businesses increase, what’s being done to make the area more small business friendly?
Staebler: One of the most important things we’ve done at Wayne State is make Midtown safer. Crime in the neighborhood is down 58percent, and the neighborhood is safer than many suburbs. We’ve done this through use of the CompStat data-driven policing model and by expanding the Wayne State University Police Department’s boundaries. Our 59-member sworn force patrols a four-square-mile area and spends 70% of their time off campus, addressing the needs of the neighborhood. As important as the numbers is WSUPD’s reputation for building community relationships. Students and staff, residents and business owners know and trust their WSUPD officers, and I can’t give Chief Tony Holt and his team enough credit for that.
We also work really intentionally to link local businesses to the Wayne State community, through such things as discounts and promotions, a Detroit Zone at one of our largest student festivals and other outreach efforts. We’ve got several placemaking initiatives underway too, aimed at creating a more fluid connection between campus and the surrounding neighborhood. We want to get more of the Wayne State community out to our local businesses and attractions, and we also want our neighbors to come to campus more often and experience all we have to offer. We work closely with Midtown Detroit Inc. and our other partners, of course, and we’ve got some other projects in the works that I’ll be excited to talk about soon.