Talking TechTown’s Reboot, Detroit’s Robustness With Charlie Moret
Charlie Moret, the TechTown business incubator’s new managing director of technology-based entrepreneurship, says he’s a lifelong “intrapreneur.” His passion has always been innovating, but he’s often been doing it from inside a broader organization.
That’s a major reason why, when given the opportunity to reboot TechTown’s programs and take them back to their high-technology roots, he jumped at the chance. “Our initial focus is, how do we re-engage the tech community and deliver solid programming?” he says.
Moret says the way TechTown looks at startup activity is much different than, say, a venture investor. “Investors look for highly disruptive technology with a large market,” he points out. “Our lens is different—is there a viable business opportunity, can it be sustainable, and can it get to the first customer in a relatively short time? It makes a big difference in who we undertake.”
This spring, TechTown launched the Labs Venture Accelerator, a 12-week, bootcamp-style program that attempts to speed up early-stage startups and test the viability of their concepts. Upon graduation, Moret says the hope is that some of the startups will be ready for full-time TechTown incubation.
The first Labs Venture Accelerator session was held from April to June with six teams, three part-time and three full-time. Moret says the number of startups applying to be a part of the program was “anemic” and almost right away, one of the full-time teams disintegrated. Nonetheless, he’s happy with the way the program has turned out.
“At the end, we participated in a showcase in front of a panel of judges with the Detroit Technology Exchange,” he says. “There were 11 companies: three from TechTown, four from Bizdom, and four from Invest Detroit. Two of the TechTown teams won—one was first place and one was tied for second, so it was a good start.”
The fall Labs Venture Accelerator session will start Oct. 21, with the application process opening Aug. 26 and closing Sept. 30. Unlike last session, Moret says the accelerator will accept entrepreneurs who already have full-time jobs and are working on a startup part-time.
This summer, Moret has focused on TechTown’s Launch Detroit program for student startups. Launch Detroit runs for 10 weeks and is in partnership with the Detroit Technology Exchange. Those accepted to participate receive an entrepreneurial stipend of up $2,500 per individual or $7,500 per venture team. Moret says 17 teams applied to be part of this summer’s class, and 10 from universities across Michigan were accepted.
Moret has also spent some time “reigniting” TechTown’s relationships with Wayne State University, the University of Detroit, and the Detroit Medical Center. He’s focused on commercialization activities and finding tech transfer opportunities.
“I’ll work as the initial team to get something off the ground, but then I’ll try to find talent to take over the assignment,” he adds.
In addition, Moret is reaching out to the public at large. He invites any local tech-based or tech-enabled startup, no matter what stage or sector, to stop by his office hours, which he holds at TechTown every other Thursday. (The next office hours will be held Aug. 29; click here to sign up for a spot.)
“I invite people working on projects in their basements to come out and engage with us,” he says. “Even if we can’t directly help, we can direct the entrepreneur to a plethora of resources.”
Before moving to the Motor City, Moret spent 13 years at Connecticut Innovations, a quasi-public/private organization that nurtures and invests in startups. Moret also ran a $20 million pre-seed fund for startups and ran several incubators in partnership with Yale and the University of Connecticut.
When Moret took over the TechTown job in December , he had only been to Detroit once, for a conference in 2008, and he admits he hardly left the hotel. He’s an unapologetic fan of the city now, though.
“Detroit is such an attractive place,” he says. “There’s a robustness of the entrepreneurial ecosystem—there are so many players working hard to make startups successful, and the state programs are extremely well designed. Coming here, there’s so much more to work with [than in Connecticut].”
If anything, Moret thinks Detroiters are too hard on themselves. “People are so self-critical here, yet I saw so much to praise,” he notes. “It’s far exceeded my expectations.”