TEDxDetroit Talks Up Coolest Michigan Technology, Entrepreneurship

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Part of the crowd at TEDxDetroit Wednesday hears opening speaker Lex Kuhne

Part of the crowd at TEDxDetroit Wednesday hears opening speaker Lex Kuhne

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Its home page describes TEDxDetroit as the class reunion of the world’s coolest high school.

It’s also an idea incubator, business idea tryout spot, and networking opportunity nonpareil.

More than 1,500 of Detroit’s leaders in Technology, Entertainment and Design — hence the acronym — packed Orchestra Hall for the third annual TEDxDetroit conference.

The day featured literally dozens of speakers and presentations on creative endeavors, ranging from a stay-at-home mom who turned a desire to have her child listen to classical music into a multimillion-dollar business to a 22-year-old organizer of events in Grand Rapids that draw tens of thousands to an 9-year-old lemonade entrepreneur.

The bottom line? Keep working. Keep creating. Keep innovating. Especially in Detroit, where the cool stuff really is rising from the ashes.

The day’s first speaker, attorney and music entrepreneur Lex Kuhne, said TEDxDetroit “gives us time to get off our respective gerbil wheels and think. What are you going to do after the day? If you’re a left brain type why are you thinking that? People talk about thinking outside the box, but the fact that you’re here suggests you don’t give a damn about the box.”

He said of the event: “If we’re going to make this community better, you connect the dots, you do the work, and you meet some interesting people here, and who knows what amazing things will happen today.”

The rest of the morning’s speakers included:

* Mark Salamango, co-founder of Robot Town, an effort to build a robotics industry accelerator and educational institution in Detroit. Salamango used people wearing T-shirts rather than PowerPoint slides to make his point — robotics are taking over the world, but Asia is investing five times what we are in them, and Europe twice as much. Michigan, he said, has cars, engineers, manufacturing, universities and the U.S. Army’s robotics command, so it can easily become a leader in robots for agriculture, transportation, the military, medicine and human service. Robot Town, he said, will be “a campus where we do lots of things,” from university classes to testing. Robot Town has already attracted General Motors Corp., the U.S. Army and Lego as sponsors, and is at TEDxDetroit to win more volunteers and financial support. More at www.robottown.org.

* Christina Keller, business unit leader for TripleQuest at Grand Rapids-based Cascade Engineering. Keller said today’s political polarization has relegated “doing good” to a suspicous activity among business, but business needs to embrace sustainability as a long-term economic benefit — thinking of only the short term, she said, gives us Bernie Madoff and Enron and the 2008 Wall Street collapse. Cascade, she said, is making several steps to long-term social benefit, from a water filter for developing countries that requires no electricity to a welfare-to-career program. Keller said the welfare-to-career program didn’t work initially because Cascade staffers didn’t realize welfare recipients’ challenges in everything from transportation to child care to communication sills. “We kept after it, remade the program, got access to a social worker on site to help with child care, put the entire organization through diversity training, got public transit to make stops at our facilities.” Cascade now offers a similar program for released prisoners and is building one for returning veterans.

* ‘Digital storyteller’ and filmmaker Matt Dibble, who offered an amusing look at the effects of Detroit’s resurgence. “All the Detroit lofts are full, there are waiting lists everywhere,” Dibble said. “We have this image that it’s ‘Come to Detroit, there’s lots of space available, and it’s really cheap, and we fart rainbows,’ and none of it’s true. All this new energy, new people, new ideas, new commerce — congratulations, those who stuck around, you’re about to be greatly rewarded. But it also means new competition. People here might think of themselves as big fish in a small pond, but that pond is about to become a much larger sea.” He said his key to success is simple — ask questions and listen to the answers. He said that sometimes isn’t easy in what has become a very argumentative society.

* Tara Michener, founder of TMI LLC, who turned childhood bullying and racial tension into a line of children’s and young adult books, a literacy project that partners with community institutions to give away books, and a company that provides diversity services to business.

* Rob Bliss, a 22-year-old Grand Rapids native who has done amazing “large scale community engagement” art projects in downtown Grand Rapids. Included was founder a launch of a crowd of 30,000 to watch him launch 100,000 paper airplanes off downtown roofs, 10,000 riders for a giant water slide built on downtown Grand Rapids’ Lyon Street hill, 5,000 attending a mass sidewalk chalk art event and 3,000 attending a mass Fourth of July water balloon fight. Bliss, who described himself as “a super-indifferent high school student,” said he got some of his ideas from silly events at Western Michigan University, and not all have been successful — a December 2008 Santa event attracted all of 65 people after 10,000 were invited. However, Bliss is also responsible for Grand Rapids’ Lip Dub movie, which has attracted more than four million views, and which film critic Roger Ebert called the greatest music video ever made.

* Julie Aigner Clark, Michigan native and Michigan State University English major, who created the Baby Einstein line of classical music video for kids for her id, because “I just could not listen to Barney. I guess I could have put on the Clash or the Smiths or something, but I decided it would probably be better for her to listen to classical music. So I shot video of stuff she liked to look at, the family cat, a puppet on my hand, toys, and set it to classical music.” Friends really liked the idea, and the idea for a company was born. The Baby Einstein logo, she said, “was literally drawn at my kitchen table and it is now on millions of products around the world. What are the odds of that happening? Pretty small. But you can never approach life that way.” She wound up selling Baby Einstein to Disney. Clark also offered a stirring account of her life as a multiple cancer survivor — another long shot against the odds.

* Randal Charlton, CEO of Wayne State’s TechTown, the self-described “old fart in a tie” in the very youthful TEDxDetroit crowd. Charlton gave a heartfelt account of his life as a serial entrepreneur, which cratered when a Louisiana blues bar and restaurant he founded went broke, followed by a couple of other failed attempts at business, followed by the death of his daughter. Along the way Charlton worked at everything from a cattle ranch to a medical equipment supply firm to a flower shop. He said he eventually convinced Oxford Biosciences to put up $500,000 to found a life sciences company — but realized that margins would be tight, “so I decided to find the lowest cost place in America. So i came here.” By 2006, his Asterand was a public company with $20 million a year in sales. “Detroit gave me back my confidence, and for that I will always be grateful, and it’s probably why I’ve got the nerve to stand up here and talk to you,” Charlton said. And now, as executive director of Tech Town — “a job for which I had no obvious qualifications,” he joked — he’s now running a business incubator with 255 companies and contacts with 3,000 more entrepreneurs. “It’s OK to fail as long as you learn something from it,” he told the crowd. (And in the case of that Louisiana bar, it was mistaking the perfect location for the perfect business.)

* Claude A. Pruneau, director of Wayne State University’s planetarium, who gave the crowd a brief history of the universe as we know it, from a fraction of a second after the Big Bang to the very flower of evolution, TEDxDetroit.

* Bobby Smith, a native of Jamaica who came to Wayne State University on a fencing scholarship, and who now runs En Garde Detroit, a nonprofit to teach fencing to city youth. Smith said he’s also interested in making Detroit a producer of fencing materials. Smith is also an education reform crusader, saying that K-12 education now has to break the chains of poverty, by increasing education in financial literacy, fitness and empathy. K-12 must also emphasize entrepreneurial education, Smith said, because teaching school age youth how to create social enterprises means kids learn planning, social responsibility, research and self-sufficiency.

* And you can’t forget Sebastian Kuipers, the 9-year-old owner of Sebastian’s Gourmet Lemonade in Muskegon. He said he runs his business by four principles — keep it simple, have a great product, be better than the competition and give back to your community. He set up his professional lemonade stand at TEDxDetroit and said he plans to use the profits from his regular gig at a farmer’s market in Muskegon to buy a mobile lemonade cart and establish a Web site.

The event also featured music, including the perky alternafolk of Mayaemi and a haunting lost-love ballad by Chris Bathgate, with a thundering crescendo built  by Bathgate himself onstage, by sampling his own guitar and voice and adding to it, layer by layer.

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