At Xconomy Detroit, A New Narrative Begins In A City That Is Always Striving

4/20/10

Welcome to Xconomy Detroit, a continuing chronicle of what this city is “becoming.”

The word “Detroit” has always been immersed in meaning far beyond the physical borders of this great and tragic city. At one time, there was no need to define what one meant by the phrase “coming out of Detroit.” It was synonymous with the very best of American ingenuity and progress. Time passes, and the D-word is almost an epithet.

Here’s what I think: “Detroit” is a verb.

It is constantly in the process of doing, of becoming, of moving from one state of being to another. This is true despite what you may hear or read about Detroit’s historic complacency as a one-industry town.

I have lived in Michigan most of my life. I know that Detroit is always seeking to become—even within the confines of its now-maligned “one industry.” There is a great deal of “becoming” contained within the knowledge, talent, creativity, and sheer willpower of the late, great automotive industry.

Even back in the mid-’80s, when I went to school at Wayne State University in Detroit, there was talk of renaissance, a common buzzword in Detroit. But it has taken just about my entire adult life for me to actually see the seeds of true renaissance.

TechTownA few weeks ago, I went back to my old Wayne State campus—where my father before me attended, as well—and was impressed by the bustle over at TechTown, a business incubator that has seen unbelievable growth just in the past year. I saw young go-go business types walking with bookish-looking scientists as they toured their new digs together. With 160 tenants, TechTown is full. TechTown Two is just being launched inside, appropriately enough, a shut-down old Cadillac dealership.

There is a hunger here. It comes out of necessity, certainly, as many talented people find themselves out of work, forced to become instant entrepreneurs. Hobbies become livelihoods. Long-held ideas are taken out of drawers and, thanks to incubators like TechTown, have a chance to breathe.

But TechTown is only the beginning of a new narrative for Detroit. And when I say “Detroit,” I am also talking about Northern Ohio and Southeastern Michigan, including Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, which is placing more emphasis these days on spinning out companies and partnering with industry. University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman has a variation on an old academic mantra. At U-M, it’s “partner or perish” as the university aggressively pursues business relationships to turn academic ideas into business realities.

Lawrence Molnar, director of U-M’s Economic Development Administration University Center, recently told a congressional panel that universities are playing a key role in turning local economies around.

It is pretty to say, this idea of a turnaround, but it is hard to convey just how enormous the task is. Michigan lost about 80,000 manufacturing jobs just in the last year alone. Unemployment is the highest in the nation. People are losing their jobs, their homes, a way of life that their parents and grandparents worked hard to build.

Because there is relatively little deal flow coming in to Michigan, a great deal of what I will report in Xconomy will be attempts to get things moving. Universities and government are crucial to the story. I have written before about the state’s Green Sector Skills Alliance, which is attempting to take a workforce already skilled in automotive engineering and transfer them to the promised, new “green” economy.

Detroit Skyline Joe LouisI will write about people like Greg Auner at Wayne State’s Smart Systems and Integrated Microsystems lab, who has been working for years on advanced sensors that he believes could revolutionize medicine. He recently created an initiative called Technology and Engineering Applications in Medicine and Surgery (TEAMS) and partnered with all the major hospitals in the region to help place these technologies directly into the hands of doctors who can use them to quickly diagnose cancer or detect viruses before they kill.

But Auner is not there yet. He still needs funding, and businesspeople to take the reins. It is still “becoming.”

But Auner knows something that many entrepreneurs in Michigan know. This region has always had the seeds of a diversified economy contained within its one industry. Think about your car, Auner says, and it’s all there, from advanced materials to sensing systems, all more sophisticated than much of what you’d find in biomedicine, he says.

For example, inside auto supplier Delphi, only recently emerged from bankruptcy, are technologies that can be taken off the shelf and applied to countless other industries.

RenCen2Col. James Braden, director of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Defense Contract Coordination Center, knows that, too. Michigan has talented automotive and robotics engineers. He is trying to steer them toward a new Michigan Automotive Robotics Cluster (MARC) initiative. He has nothing right now but an idea that a cluster like this can work, so he’s pulling together federal and state funding to help get it launched. The cluster does not exist yet. It is “becoming,” and I plan on writing about how exactly that might happen.

I plan to point out successes, too. Hopefully more and more of them as time goes by.

Adaptive Materials of Ann Arbor recently announced that it has received $4.7 million from the Pentagon to develop a fuel-cell system. This is in addition to the $3 million it received in December to develop fuel cells for the U.S. Air Force. To fill the order, the company is looking to hire nine new engineers. Adaptive’s success illustrates one place where Detroit can find some success right now—in energy innovation combined with government or military funding and incentives.

Four new plants that manufacture batteries for electric vehicles are being built in Michigan using, in part, federal stimulus money. Dow Chemical plans to build a new solar-shingle factory in the middle of Michigan.

These things might not even be considered “news” in other regions, but in Detroit they are important parts of a narrative, the tale of what Detroit is becoming. I’ll follow the action as best I can, but I can use your help, too. Do you have any stories in mind, ones that can add to the narrative? Please contact me. I’m at hlovy@xconomy.com.

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  • http://www.odonnellimc.com Kelly O’Donnell

    We’re happy to have you here! There’s a wealth of great stories waiting to be told here in Michigan, and we’re thrilled Xconomy will be here to tell them!