An Inside View Of Detroit's Rising Tech Scene

You may not hear it from thehum of computers, or the soft clicking of programmers. It won’t sound as loud as the roar of Ford’s first engine. But in the heart of downtown Detroit a new workforce is thriving.

Ask anyone in the growing Detroit tech startup community why they are here and they’ll tell you this: they’ve found a problem and want to create the solution.

Chris Hallendy, a software developer at Compuware Ventures, says he moved from Chicago to Detroit to be a part of the expanding startup scene downtown.

“The different tech companies, large and small, that are popping up along Woodward are astounding, and when I saw the growing opportunity Detroit offered I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”

For years, Detroit’s IT presence was driven by the auto industry. Within the last five years, though, the tech scene has moved well beyond the Big Three due in large part to an explosive growth in mobile and cloud technologies. When I came to the city six years ago, Detroit’s tech scene was insignificant compared to what it has become now. Today downtown is thriving with young, passionate developers who want to be a part of the revitalization of Detroit through IT. Over the last few years thousands of new tech jobs have been created or have moved into the city.

Whether it’s creating a better user experience or revolutionizing the media industry, these Detroiters are busy building a community of technology-based startups that is helping solve the city’s larger economic problems, bringing economic diversity to the city and turning Detroit into a tech hub.

Over the past two years, this revolution has been driven by the start of Compuware VenturesDetroit Venture Partners, and Detroit Labs. Other companies such as Galaxe SolutionsQuicken Loans, and Atomic Object have recently moved downtown further energizing the city’s tech community.

In 2003, Compuware was the first large IT company to move downtown, building a world headquarters, which now houses 1,402 IT workers. Dan Gilbert followed in 2010, moving Quicken Loans from Livonia into the Compuware building. Quicken Loans employs 750 IT workers.

Last year, Compuware started Compuware Ventures with a desire to back other local entrepreneurs’ efforts to build the next great Detroit startup. To date Compuware Ventures has funded six startups and has a growing number of potential investments in its pipeline.

Compuware Ventures focuses on Mobile and Cloud technologies, and among the companies in their portfolio are iRuleGlocal, and Deadline Detroit

iRule provides a universal remote control as a mobile application for both iOS and Android devices. Glocal and Deadline Detroit provide news content on the web and through soon-to-come mobile applications.

Paul Czarnik, Compuware’s Chief Technology Officer, says Compuware Ventures emphasizes building an ego-free community in order to support one another and create new technology.

“We’re always learning from each other,” said Czarnik. “We used to always go to all these symposiums and things outside. Now we stay close and share with each other. It’s trust-oriented. We collaborate. We share. Big egos fall by the wayside.”

Bizdom, a non-profit started by Dan Gilbert in 2007, offers Detroit entrepreneurs seed funding, work space and access to technology leaders and mentors. It also emphasizes the importance of networking and collaborating within the community. Bizdom requires entrepreneurs accepted into its program to locate their businesses in Detroit.

Bizdom’s portfolio of startups has grown to 30 companies, including new tech companies like Green Lancer  – which provides clean energy solutions in the cloud. Many of the Bizdom graduates become candidates for investment by the Detroit-based venture capital firms.

Nathan Hughes co-founded Detroit Labs a little over a year ago with just four employees and funding from Detroit Ventures. He runs a mobile development shop that creates mobile apps for Android and iOS plus web-based applications. Now, with 22 employees, Hughes says community support is a big reason why Detroit’s tech scene is thriving. 

“There’s a sense you can do something important here, and you are getting a lot of support,” said Hughes. “If you are competing for business and it’s another Detroit or Michigan-based company, you still want to cheer them on and support the area. You don’t cheer on your competition in other places. If it’s not us, we want the work to stay here in Detroit.”

Detroit Labs and Bizdom work out of the Madison Building, an abandoned structure that opened its doors after a renovation in October 2011 and is at 100 percent capacity today, with 27 companies. Their offices offer tech startups an open collaborative environment built to keep ideas flowing and people working together. Inside, you’ll also find the new Twitter sales team that arrived in Detroit earlier this year, and Skidmore Studios, a design firm with roots in metro Detroit.

“People ask us is it safe and is it fun to work here. One hundred percent of the people love working down here,” said Hughes.

Detroit has a long history of manufacturing and engineering, and IT and web development companies are a natural evolution of the region’s blue-collar work ethic and engineering legacies.

“There are families here with generations of engineers, auto engineers, but with this generation they aren’t going into auto engineering as much,” said Hughes. “Software and technology are a natural fit.”

The same mindset that enabled manufacturing to succeed is enabling technology to grow in Detroit. The hard working, problem-solving, blue-collar work ethic is deeply ingrained in those who work in technology-based startups. They want success both for themselves and for Detroit as a whole. They long for a Detroit that they hear the older generation reminiscing about.

And as Hughes notes, technology is a field that allows young people to get jobs and stay home in Michigan with their families. It’s a field attracting college graduates.

A supportive community is at the core of what’s making IT startups successful.

“Entrepreneurship is about having a vision and building a team. It’s about making the right connections. It’s not the easy road. It’s hard, and you need help,” said Maria LaLonde of Bizdom. “Startup companies are bigger than one person.”

The tech community enjoys guiding one another and connecting each other to the right resources. Almost every night of the week you can find a technology or startup community event happening in Detroit. Compuware Ventures hosts the Detroit Lean Startup Circle, which brings together people with a passion for startups.

Other tech events around the city focus on specific technologies such as Mobile Monday Detroit, and the Detroit Ruby Group that concentrates on software development using the Ruby programming language. There are also a number of events with a broader focus that appeal to developers, creatives and business people. Bizdom sponsors a series of events that often include guest speakers like Josh Linker, the CEO of Detroit Venture Partners and author of a best-selling book on creativity.

These formal events are not the only way to get connected with the tech community in Detroit. Sometimes the best ideas start with conversation and a beer. And with people willing to listen and help.

“Come just before our next Detroit Lean Startup meeting and we can talk,” said Czarnik.

Timothy Fisher is a development lead at Compuware Ventures, where he also serves as the technology director for Deadline Detroit.  He is also a frequent speaker and writer on technology.  Amanda Lewan is a graduate student at Wayne State University.  Amanda writes on technology, Michigan businesses, and food in Metro Detroit.  Her work has been featured in The Nation, The Royal Oak Daily Tribune, and literary journals. Together they share a passion for the revitalization of Detroit and the IT industry's role in that.

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