Xconomist of the Week: Josh Linkner On Detroit “Getting Back Its Mojo”

8/29/12Follow @bbuderi

Detroit Venture Partners CEO and managing partner Josh Linkner, with his success as a serial entrepreneur, venture fund backed by Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert, and unwavering commitment to nurturing Motor City startups, has become an icon of the city’s revitalization. He’s the kind of guy other investors all over the country—and I know because I have witnessed this first hand—cite as a leader of an outlandishly ambitious, yet increasingly plausible, attempt to establish Detroit as a tech startup hotspot.

I caught up with Linkner, an Xconomist, on the phone this week, primarily to discuss some event ideas in Detroit and elsewhere. While I had him on the line, I also asked him for a quick update on the Detroit tech scene and how it is progressing. He was unabashed in his enthusiasm. Michigan is already pretty well-known for companies in alternative energy, batteries, and biotech, Linkner says. ”But what I’m excited about is this new emerging Web 2.0 theme that is happening in downtown. Things that are much more pure Internet, that you would imagine in Silicon Valley, are taking root in Detroit.”

Here is my very quick summary of the highlights of our brief conversation about this tech emergence:

On why Detroit is happening as a tech scene:

“We’ve had a lot of the right ingredients for years. We have great talent, great universities. One thing we didn’t have was a vibrant VC scene. There’s over a dozen venture firms in downtown Detroit right now, providing not just the capital but the work you need to do in terms of being connectors and putting deals together and coaching them [startups].” Add to that the fact that the cost of hiring a software developer in Detroit is something on the order of half what it costs on either coast, he says, and it becomes very attractive to build companies in the city. “People are taking notice, and we’re starting to see some really interesting technology companies taking off.”

On Dan Gilbert’s role in making this happen:

Gilbert purchased nearly 3 million square feet of office space in downtown Detroit, much of it for young tech workers, Linkner says. “It’s creating this really rich, work-live-play environment which is so attractive to young people who used to flee. It’s a signal to everyone else that, Hey, it’s OK to invest in Detroit.”

On ePrize as a poster child for the region:

Linkner founded Pleasant Ridge, MI-based digital marketing and engagement company ePrize back in 1999. Just last week, the company was acquired by Connecticut’s Catterton Partners. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. But, says Linkner, “It was a substantial exit. It shows you can build a tech startup here in Michigan and take it all the way to scale and exit.”

On a couple of his portfolio companies to watch:

UpTo – Linkner calls this startup “social media in the future tense. Instead of sharing your pictures from last week…you get to show what you’re about to be up to.” (I have to say, that does sound like Silicon Valley.)

Quikkly – This startup, according to Linkner, “offers a really interesting twist on sales promotion for flash sales.” Groupon, he says, serves up static deals that are the same whenever you accept them. The deals offered by Quikkly, by contrast, are dynamic, time-based. “So, basically, the more quickly you respond, the better your deal is.”

On a company he wishes he had in his portfolio:

Outdoor Hub – This Bingham Hills, MI-based company bills itself as the “outdoor information engine” and says it has “the largest audience of outdoor enthusiasts online.” Linkner calls it a big vertical ad network for folks who love hunting and fishing and the outdoors. “Those guys are doing great. “

On his definitively optimistic view of the future:

“The Detroit tech scene is just unbelievably exciting right now,” Linkner says. “Detroit is often looked on as the old school city. But Detroit is in the midst of getting back its mojo. There’s a high demand for tech jobs. There are companies that are just growing at the seams. We’re in the midst of this incredible scene where we get to see the rebirth of a great American city.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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