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.
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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?"
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.'"
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
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
"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
Howard Bell Outside TechTown
Tech One Buiding
Tech One Building
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger