TechTown Helping Startups In All Industries, Region-Wide
DETROIT — The name on the building is TechTown, and this business incubator is smack in the growing Midtown neighborhood of Detroit.
But the folks there want to remind you that they don’t just help tech companies, and they don’t just help companies that are based in Detroit.
Cases in point: Detroit-based Bottom Line Coffee House LLC and Novi-based Mental Note Online.
Bottom Line Coffee House is just that, a coffee house, scheduled to open this spring in the historic, renovated Beethoven Apartments building at the corner of Prentis and Third streets in the Midtown neighborhood. Cool, but hardly a high-tech enterprise.
Mental Note Online, meanwhile, is developing an extemely high-tech electronic medical records system for mental health practices. But it’s moved out of TechTown into its first real office — which happens to be just off Grand River Avenue in Novi. High-tech, but no longer in Detroit.
What the two companies have in common is the expert advice they’ve received from TechTown’s staff of “entrepreneurial champions.”
For Al and Pat Harris, owners of Bottom Line Coffee, that means Mike O’Rourke, a former corporate lawyer, and Derrin Leppek, a former assembly line worker at Ford Motor Co. who later helped launch a biodiesel company.
“I reached out to Tech Town because I wanted to coaching, people who had worked in business and could answer my questions, and that’s what happened,” said Pat Harris, a veteran of more than 20 years of HR experience in highter education.
Harris said the Bottom Line will be an independent, neighborhood coffee bar that will sell espresso, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, smoothies, a “select variety” of cold bottled beverages and a “delectable” assortment of fresh baked goods. Harris said the coffee bar will support the local economy by hiring local residents and buying baked goods from Traffic Jam & Snug, buying coffee from Righteous Bean Coffee and buying paper products from Green Safe Products. The couple’s son Kyle will manage the coffee house.
The Bottom Line also features a unique, colorful mural that survived the $1 million renovation of the Beethoven from neighborhood eyesore to 28-unit apartment building, and a new coffee bar and table made of what Harris called “ghetto palm” — scientifically known as Ailanthus altissima, originally a Chinese garden tree that spreads easily on abandoned land because it can grow in highly polluted soils and re-sprouts vigorously when cut down, making it hard to eradicate. The plant grows vigorously on untended parts of cities across America.
Next up for the Harrises: Involvement in the reestoration of the nearby Forest Arms apartment building, which they hope will be the site of their second location. Al Harris has spent the last six years working with entrepreneur Scott Lowell on the renovation of the Blackstone and Beethoven apartment buildings.
For Thanh H. Tran, founder and president of Mental Note Online, TechTown offered “all the resources” he needed to help with his startup — “They’re connected to everyone, coaching, anything you need for a startup.”
Tran has already had one sharp career turn. An electrical engineering graduate of Michigan State University, Tran was working at General Motors when he decided to switch to health care and became a sales representative for Eli Lilly.
In that job he met a lot of mental health professionals. And with the current push toward electronic medical records, he saw a lot of opportunity for a specialty EMR product just for mental health.
A program offered through TechTown, called Smart Start, introduced Tran to the company that would be his software developers, Integrated Open Systems of Rochester.
Mental Note did its beta testing last year and launched its product in October. It has 43 customers so far. Tran proudly notes that some of them are international, including Canada, South Africa and Australia.
He’s created three jobs so far, but is a bit sheepish that he’s offshored his support help line to the Ukraine. “We found out they could handle it for $7 an hour, which we can afford,” Tran said.
Tran added that he’s hiring, especially sales.
Eventually, Tran said, “I would like to sell my business like a Sam Hogg or a Josh Linkner and to help other people start new companies.” (Both Hogg and Linkner are young Detroit-area Internet entrepreneurs who sold their companies — GiftZip.com for Hogg and ePrize LLC for Linkner — and are now investors and entrepreneurial consultants.)
Tran’s coach is Herb Drayton, a former computer salesman and systems analyst.
“We try with any client that comes in here, to meet ’em where they’re at — whether they’re in Detroit or in Novi, whether they’re in EMR or a coffee shop,” Drayton said. “We try to figure out where they need to go and what the milestones are to get them there.”
TechTown spokeswoman Francine Wunder said TechTown is ready to help more businesses — in all industries, throughout southeast Michigan.
More at www.techtownwsu.org.