Incubator Wants to Transform Detroit from Motor City to Engine for Innovation

December 26, 2018
Updated 2mo ago

By Justin Chermol

Roughly five years ago, Detroit made history as the largest city to ever file for municipal bankruptcy. But in 2018, the Motor City is teaching itself how to transform from America's factory into an engine for innovation.

According to start-up incubator TechTown CEO and president Ned Staebler, adjustments to the city's economy and the value of its labor supply could begin a tech-based rebirth, a future when automobiles are not just considered vessels of transportation, but rather pieces of the tech revolution.

"At this point, cars are tech products," Staebler told Cheddars J.D. Durkin on Wednesday. "There are more lines of code in an F-150 truck then there is in an F-18 fighter jet. A lot more, like 10 times as much. We have a lot of tech talent here."

TechTown ー founded in 2000 by Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health System and General Motors ($GM) ー is a Detroit-based entrepreneurial hub that serves as an incubator and accelerator for local start-ups.

Part of their mission, Staebler said, is to remove barriers of entry for budding entrepreneurs, and particularly for those in under-represented groups who may not have easy access to resources and support.

"Talent and ideas: equally distributed. Opportunity isn't. So our job is to go kick down doors and make sure people know how to execute on the ideas that they have," he said. "And that they have the resources they need."

At this stage, Detroit is more closely linked to a recent high-profile GM layoff ー in which a total of 14,000 jobs were slashed, many of them based in Michigan ー than innovation.

But Staebler is hoping to change that impression.

In his view, repurposing is crucial. Take his company's facility, which used to serve as a facility that assembled the Corvette. Now his team is re-building a 1953 GM Motorama as part of a larger mission to innovate tech from the past. "We've re-tooled it, we've repurposed it, and we are out here training the entrepreneurs of tomorrow in the same space that used to be all about the auto industry," he said.

But Staebler, like many industrious leaders in the tech and innovation fields, understands that production is evolving ー and fewer workers are required per task.

"It doesn't take as many people to make as much stuff as it used to," he said.

Numbers aside, Staebler isn't discouraged by the fatalism around the GM layoffs.

"While we have been down, we are definitely not out. And if you want to participate in something way bigger than yourself and be a part in the re-birth of a great American city, there's no place better than Detroit."

For full interview click here.