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Ex-TechTown Head Hopes Collaboration Will Help All American Cities

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Xconomy reported last month that Leslie Smith is departing her position leading the TechTown incubator in Detroit and heading to Memphis, TN, to run the Entrepreneurship Powered Innovation Center, a public-private initiative to create and support 1,000 entrepreneurs and 500 companies by 2025.

I caught up with Smith on her last day at TechTown, and we sat down to talk about what she’s learned in Detroit, remaining challenges in the local innovation ecosystem, her plans in Memphis, and whether we’ll ever see her around town again.

Smith said she started to become acquainted with the tech scene in Memphis because delegations from there were visiting Detroit to try and see what they could learn and apply to their city. “Detroit and Memphis are similar in many ways, and it feels very familiar culturally,” she said. “I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life, but the comfort and familiarity of Memphis drew me in. It’s such a cool opportunity to learn in a new city with similar challenges and a deep commitment to economic development.”

FedEx was founded in Memphis, and the city remains a leader in shipping and logistics, Smith explained. St. Jude Hospital and Medtronics are also based in Memphis, and because of that there’s a big healthtech and medical device presence, with a significant amount of research being done at the University of Tennessee medical school. “I think the biomed footprint there is a real opportunity,” she said. “I’m really impressed with the deep understanding [Memphis has] about [its] assets, and the private sector is really engaged.”

Smith also appreciates the cultural delights on offer in Memphis. “The music and food vibe there is legit,” she said. “I want to work on how we shine a brighter light on that and attract entrepreneurs who appreciate that kind of food and music vibe.”

The Memphis startup ecosystem is a little less mature than Detroit’s, Smith noted, and there are a lot of disparate efforts operating in silos. “That’s the real opportunity—to connect them and not do everything from scratch,” she said.

As for TechTown, she’s confident Ned Staebler, her former colleague at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, is the right person to take over her responsibilities. (Full disclosure: I worked with both Smith and Staebler at the MEDC many years ago.) Along with the new TechTown gig, Staebler will keep his current job overseeing economic development at Wayne State University, and, in turn, TechTown will now enjoy cabinet-level representation among the university’s leadership team.

“Without a long-term commitment from some of our partners, Wayne State has really stepped up to support TechTown financially and strategically in really creative ways,” Smith said. “Through Ned’s leadership, TechTown will be able to connect to other campus entrepreneurship programs. We’ve restored the relationship [with Wayne State], and now we’re being led back to one another. I think Ned is perfectly positioned to take this work to the next level.”

What is Smith’s advice to Detroit’s innovation ecosystem? “As funding continues to shift and potentially shrink, I see more people thinking about partnerships that enable survival. Expecting the philanthropic community to seed high-risk investments is too big an ask. How do we collectively come together to lower the size of the ask and source other dollars? I hope Wayne State’s leadership is coming together with TechTown to offer a cutting-edge strategy for the whole network—one where we partner more deeply, consolidate where it makes sense, and strive for less overhead. I’ve talked to Ned a lot about becoming a thought leader when it comes to strengthening the Detroit network through partnership. I think the nation will be paying attention, and that’s how you help the work continue.”

Any other parting words? “I care deeply about what’s happening here,” she said. “I hope I can continue to share with my colleagues in Detroit and learn from them for the benefit of all American cities. I’ve loved every minute here—the hard ones and the easy ones.”