Aligning the Stars of TechTown

As nerve-wracking as it would be to start one business, try starting up an incubator for dozens of start-up entrepreneurs.

Thankfully, Howard Bell, executive director of TechTown, was bitten by the entrepreneurial "bug" several years ago. After two years, TechTown has nearly filled its first building and is looking to develop its second.

Bell, a lawyer and engineer, is not only trying to develop a technology incubator, which given the failure of the Metropolitan Center for High Technology a few years ago is a challenge in itself. Rather, he's developing a 12-block area of vacant manufacturing buildings in New Center into an entrepreneurial "learning" community, including residential lofts and retail businesses.

TechTown began with the vision of Irvin Reid, president of Wayne State University, and other community leaders, as a catalyst for establishing new technology businesses in Southeast Michigan.

When Bell was tapped to run TechTown, he was impressed with the board of directors, which included representatives from General Motors, Henry Ford Health System, as well as other business, university and state executives. He expected "deep pockets" to fund the operation. Instead, he found himself with only $2 million, funded through the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Tech One building donated by General Motors, and in-kind support from Henry Ford Health System. His opportunity: an abandoned former manufacturing district that one would think as the last place to cultivate the future of Michigan industry.

"That was the most stunning realization I had," recalls Bell, 43, director of venture development at Wayne State and instructor in its business school. "I had to figure out how I was going to pay for all of this." Pitching business projects to venture capitalists is something Bell was familiar with, having managed four companies and the Continental Basketball Association for Isiah Thomas – all at one time. He had access to some of the major venture capitalists in America. At TechTown, access to venture capital is considerably more difficult, and the risk is great.

In 2004, he didn't expect the dramatic downturn in the state's economy, primarily because of the failing auto industry. Suddenly, the idea of Michigan's next economy was a critical issue. "Who knew that I would be walking into something that could have such a significant impact throughout the state, if successful?" Bell says.

If successful? Entrepreneurs flirt with failure whenever they develop an idea they believe will change the world and make money. They have to convince investors that there will be a profit. Suddenly, Bell became the ultimate entrepreneur having to convince both entrepreneurs and investors that TechTown will be the engine for Michigan's technology industry.

Bell is accustomed to "entrepreneurial speak," the rhetoric you use to convince people you have a profitable business idea, even though in the back of your head you haven't
worked everything out yet.

That, he says, is the "entrepreneurial spirit." Or hustle, as others might call it. "I don't know how we're going to make all of this work. … There is risk here and I can't say it's all going to go away. But if we work at it and if we deal with everything as it comes, we'll accomplish it."

Entrepreneurial czar

Business leaders view Bell as Detroit's "entrepreneurial economic czar," says Jim Croce, chief executive officer of NextEnergy, an alternative energy incubator located within TechTown. Croce, who has served with Bell on Mayor Kilpatrick's Next Detroit transition team, adds, "When people talk about rebuilding Detroit based on entrepreneurial activity, they're looking to Howard."

Born into a poor family in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Bell knows where the bottom is, and it's a lot lower than the worst of the early days at TechTown. "When I was born, my mother received public assistance," he says. "I was the youngest of six. My father drove a cab and trucks. … When my staff hears me talking about how we will not fail, it's because I have seen it all. When people talk about having a bad day, I say, 'Let me describe about having a bad day.' Then they say I guess my day's really not so bad."

Bell worked his way through college and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Brown University. He received a law degree at the University of Virginia law school, eventually practicing intellectual property law at Kenyon & Kenyon, an international law firm in New York. A few years into his law practice, he left to pursue a master's of business administration at the University of Michigan. Between his first and second years in the U-M program, Bell was hired by Barden Motors, a joint venture between General Motors and Don Barden, to help establish a vehicle manufacturing business in Namibia. "That was really my entrepreneurial bug. When we got there, there was nothing. We had to set up an office; we had to hire staff … It was a completely different environment for setting up a business and it was the first one I had done. … It was fun."

Bell has also served as director of finance for Becker Group, a multinational manufacturer of interior vehicle components, and a consultant at PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

A pragmatic visionary, Bell "has the personality and traits you would expect in an effective leader, which are the qualities of vision, and connectedness, and being able to use a network and perseverance — being good on your feet," says Jayson D. Pankin, New Venture Creation Specialist for Delphi Technologies Inc. Pankin helped develop SpaceForm, one of the start-ups in TechTown. Bell serves on the SpaceForm Board of Directors. He also serves on the advisory boards of GradeCheck, Biovant Systems, and Beyond Digital, which are other tenants of TechTown.

"All start-up companies, by definition, require a lot of creativity, flexibility. And executives with start-ups must be willing to do what it takes to succeed," says Pankin.

That includes shoveling snow. Bell recalls that during the first serious snowfall at TechTown, there was some question as to whom would clear the sidewalks. Bell says he went to a store, bought a couple shovels, and shoveled the snow himself. The next time it snowed, other tenants went out to help.

Bell's ability to raise the funds to convert an old factory building into a contemporary office complex "came about through a tenacious process," says Pankin.

Bell generated much of TechTown's initial operating funds by selling historic tax credits gained through the rehabilitation of the old buildings and through loans guaranteed by Wayne State. The Hudson-Webber Foundation and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan provided operational funds. Overall, Bell has been able to leverage the initial $2 million into $12 million, allowing TechTown to complete renovation, pay off all debt, fund operational expenses and have some left over for reserves. TechTown was the first tech park in the country to combine historic, brownfield, and new market tax credits, according to Bell. Future funding is expected to come through rental incomes, federal and state grants, and continued private foundation and corporation funding.

The first tenant of Tech One was Asterand, a biotech company creating a tissue bank for researchers worldwide. Randall Charlton, Asterand president, met Bell casually in business circles, but when Bell read that the biotech company might leave its space within Karmanos Cancer Institute – and leave the city – because of space limitations, he phoned Charlton with a proposal. He told Charlton, "I want you to get in a cab and go downtown." Charlton, intrigued, asked, "What for?" Bell told him he had a room full of architects willing to design "an ideal world for the development of your company. What do you want in terms of lab facilities, office facilities? How do you want your goods in, goods out?"

Bell offered to build this ideal environment in TechTown. "That turned out to be the case," says Charlton, "without any commitment other than my word that I would be the tenant. We had nothing in writing. He designed the entire top floor (for Asterand). It was pretty gutsy, if you look at it from his perspective. … What Howard did was show a tremendous amount of personal trust."

Asterand became the first tenant in Tech One, moving its 50 employees into the building, which was designed to offer twice as much space as the company needed. "He trusted not only my word that I was going to be a tenant, but that we would grow to the size we actually grew to be. He took a considerable risk on us." Today, Asterand has more than 100 employees.

"He's a natural networker," Charlton says of Bell. On any given day, "he would bring around someone who would be useful to Asterand. … He's a promoter in the best sense of the word." And Charlton says Bell has an appreciation for the eccentric ideas that are often the stuff of entrepreneurial life. "If I go down the hall and say, 'Howard, I've got this idea.' He doesn't say, 'You're a British weirdo.' (Charlton is British.) He says, 'Let me think about how we can help put it together.'"

Bell has recruited nearly 40 companies and with 1,000 employees working on site. He also has negotiated arrangements with other companies working elsewhere in the region, giving TechTown a virtual identity as well. Bell predicts that TechTown will eventually create up to 10,000 jobs and will be known as a vibrant business and residential district in Detroit, much like the rest of New Center to the north and Midtown to the south.

'Stars are aligned'

In a region and state that struggle with a vision for the future, Bell is a visionary. The onetime New Yorker, Bell says the future lies in bucking the sprawling trend in Southeast Michigan, building the future in the shell of old urban factories, creating an environment that will draw aspiring entrepreneurs to live and work within a university research environment, and employing the resulting energy to create a dynamic urban district.

"I think the stars are aligned," Bell says. "Initially, I was worried. A lot of it comes down to the type of people that are here. I'm an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs only know how to go into a room and convince everyone in the room to believe that we're going to make it."

Bell passes through TechTown with a casual air. He speaks candidly and reveals a sense of vulnerable, honest optimism. He can be charming and coolly analytical, humorous and serious. Bell seems to have found himself in an unlikely place with an opportunity to do something very challenging which he hadn't intended to do.

"It's an interesting place to be," he says. "You've got no history to rely on and you've got no widgets to sell … you're not going to convince people to invest in you because they will get ROI (return on investment). It's: 'Invest in us because we will create jobs and economic benefit.'"


Howard Bell Outside TechTown

Tech One Buiding

Howard Bell

Next Energy

Tech One Building

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
Signup for Email Alerts