Welcome to Detroit: Future Home of RobotTown?

10/5/11Follow @XconomyDET

Detroit already has a Greektown, a Corktown, a Poletown, and even Hockeytown. Soon, if Mark Salamango has his way, it will also have RobotTown, a nonprofit “living laboratory” dedicated to robotics innovation, testing, education, incubation, and events.

Salamango compares RobotTown, which he hopes will have a campus in the middle of the city, to a futuristic version of Dearborn, MI’s Greenfield Village, a National Historic Landmark that celebrates American history and innovation through unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, re-enactments, and displays. He wants to create a place where parents bring their kids, teachers bring their students, and interested parties come from near and far to interact with what’s on display, whether it’s agricultural robots in a field harvesting corn, personal vehicles powered by robots, or a food court where robots keep the floors tidy.

Salamango also wants RobotTown to be a facility where government and private industry can test robotics innovations, as well as a space where garage-workshop scientists can bring their ideas and collaborate with other tinkerers and entrepreneurs. Salamango says the vacant former Michigan State Fair site near 8 Mile and Woodward—with its 180 acres, paved lanes, and auditorium—is the venture’s dream home.

“We want a place where people can socialize with robots and understand them more,” Salamango says. “I also think it’s so valuable for kids to see scientists at work. I have daughters, and before they get into the Justin Bieber thing and then that’s all they care about, I want to get them interested in robotics.”

RobotTown was conceived by the U.S. Army’s head roboticist Jim Overholt, who works out of the Tank Automotive Research and Development Center in Warren, MI. Salamango, who has a background in computer science and has been a fan of robots since the days of C3PO and Twiki, teamed with Corey Clothier, a business-strategy consultant, to turn their friend’s idea into a nonprofit in June. Though GM and the U.S. military have expressed interest in utilizing RobotTown for testing, Salamango and Clothier are still looking for a primary investor.

Investment is exactly what Salamango hopes RobotTown attracts to metro Detroit. He says Michigan is the perfect place to locate the U.S. headquarters of the robotics industry because, in addition to being firmly established in the defense sector, Michigan already has the skill sets and parts suppliers needed in robotics. Though Salamango’s enthusiasm is unmistakable, it’s also clear that the slow, often thorny process of peeling back layers of bureaucratic red tape has left him frustrated.

“The bigger picture is that we’re third in the nation when it comes to giving out engineering degrees, but there aren’t enough engineering jobs to sustain our graduates,” Salamango says. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could build an industry that spawns new startups and keeps all that talent here? Someone has to put a stake in the ground and start driving toward something. Damn it, if nobody is going to say that then I will.”

Though Salamango thinks he has a solid business case based on RobotTown’s testing component alone, his other goal is to create something that is sustainable by establishing a robotic “maker space.” He envisions seminars and open lab time, as well as commercialization assistance.

“There are so many intelligent, passionate DIYers in Detroit,” Salamango says. “We want to get them together to solve problems. I don’t see RobotTown providing hands-on mentorship, but at least we could give them a start and get them the right contacts, and then hopefully pass them on to Techtown or Bizdom U.”

Salamango also plans to work closely with the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program, a nationally acclaimed program that offers free, extracurricular schooling to inner-city kids traditionally underrepresented in engineering programs. Education, particularly in the field of robotics, is something Salamango spends a lot of time thinking about. He worries that the United States is getting left in the dust when it comes to robotic innovation and investment. South Korea, for example, is in the midst of spending billions of dollars building a theme park called Robot Land. Robot Land is much more like an amusement park than RobotTown, but Salamango’s point is that South Korea is putting its money where its mouth is.

“Other countries are going to kill us on robotics, and it will be our own fault if we’re followers,” Salamango says. “To me, it’s such a no-brainer. I want to leave my kids something that has a positive impact on the city and state.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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