A business incubator in Detroit wants to launch hundreds of tech companies.
Crammed into a small Detroit office filled with pipe fittings, hydraulic tubing, and a device that looks like a gas pump combined with a supercomputer, Dave Shaw sums up how his life has changed. Tipping back in a cheap office chair, the former auto executive points beneath the folding table that is his desk. “We had a ton of people working for us,” Shaw says, crossing his stocky arms over his chest. “Now you have to do it all yourself. See that trash can? If I want it emptied, I empty it myself.”
Two of Shaw’s colleagues at Clean Emission Fluids grin knowingly. All three once worked for auto companies or their suppliers. Today, as Shaw says, they are wearing many more hats than they ever did working for the Big Three: They are engineering, assembling, and marketing a highly sophisticated biodiesel blending machine that they hope will propel their three-year-old startup to huge success. The machine makes any biofuel easily available in whatever mixture of traditional diesel and alternative fuel a trucker or fleet might choose. The result is cleaner-burning engines. “We aren’t waiting for the auto industry to come save us,” says Clean Emission CEO Oliver Baer, a ThyssenKrupp alumnus. “We’re going to save ourselves.”
Clean Emission is one of 160 startups that are part of a nonprofit incubator in central Detroit called TechTown. Founded by Wayne State University in 2000, the research park set out to make technology and entrepreneurship an engine of economic growth in a city that depended too much on, well, engines. With the U.S. auto industry in a shambles, TechTown’s mission seems more critical than ever.