LTU Collaboratory incubates and accelerates startups

Unfortunately, the path from idea to a marketable product can be long and murky. The LTU Collaboratory was founded to assist entrepreneurs to find their way.

Established in 2013 by Lawrence Technological University in partnership with the City of Southfield, the Collaboratory is part of the Southfield SmartZone, now known as Southfield Centrepolis, one of 17 innovation centers in the Michigan SmartZone network.

Utilizing Metro Detroit’s rich manufacturing history and Lawrence Tech’s expertise in engineering and design, the Collaboratory focuses on helping companies with product development, engineering, prototyping and manufacturing of physical products.

And in an increasingly digital world, the LTU Collaboratory is working to help companies better design and develop physical products such as medical, safety, consumer and industrial products.

“It has become a niche for us and is what Detroit and the Metro area are known for. We are filling the gap that is underserved in being able to help companies design and manufacture products,” explains Mark Brucki, executive director of Corporate & Community Partnerships at Lawrence Tech. “At the beginning, it was 'let’s open the door and see what comes in,' says Brucki. "Because LTU has a background in engineering, design, and manufacturing, we added a design focus on our C2C program, targeting companies and startups making durable products. What we saw was an immediate spike in participation with companies that wanted to do physical product development.”

Mark Brucki. Photo by David Lewinski.

The Collaboratory boasts a lightning-paced, if brief, history. At its heart is C2C, launched in 2014 following the I-Corps program customer engagement model of the National Science Foundation. Between its launch and 2016, LTU Collaboratory guided 50 companies through a customer discovery process during nine-week C2C programs.

In 2015, the Collaboratory was one of the first recipients of a $100,000 Michigan Economic Development Corporation Gatekeeper Business Incubator grant.

“The MEDC provided funding for SmartZones to compete for a Gatekeeper grant to hire someone to help run their entire support services organization,” Brucki explains. “After toughing it out for 18 months, in 2016 we were able to add people that can take the Collaboratory to the next level.”

With the funding, the Collaboratory hired Lee Gorman as mentor-in-residence.

“Lee has an automotive background and has had a consulting practice, and worked with Ann Arbor Spark,” says Brucki. Utilizing LTU budget funds, the organization also hired Ross Sanders, a former executive with Dan Gilbert’s now-refocused Detroit startup accelerator Bizdom, as manager of corporate partnerships.

Lee Gorman. Photo by David Lewinski.

Eighteen months into their MEDC grant, the Collaboratory has helped 15 companies form, two more companies expanded. Ultimately, they helped create 19 jobs. They have helped raise $2.4 million in follow-on funding. And LTU Collaboratory companies have received two new patents in 2016.

All working together

A close partnership with the City of Southfield enhances the offerings of the LTU Collaboratory, according to Brucki.

“I can’t underscore how fortunate we are to have the partnership of Southfield at the table. First and foremost, they are the reason we can do all of this,” he says.

Long affiliated with SmartZone tech business association Automation Alley, the City of Southfield was on board to help launch the LTU Collaboratory as an incubator that would be complementary to Automation Alley’s support offerings, says Rochelle Freeman, business and economic development director for the city.

“All the timing has been perfect," she says. "When it came time for the 15-year renewal of the SmartZone, LTU had a passion for the incubator, so we worked with them to address that need. We have always had a partnership with Automation Alley, and LTU has a healthy relationship with them as well, so this is a natural progression,” says Freeman.

Rochelle Freeman. Photo by David Lewinski.

She adds that the two incubator organizations collaborate rather than compete, noting that Automation Alley is a second-stage accelerator, whereas LTU Collaboratory nurtures concepts in their infancy to become viable, marketable products.

“We take [companies] from something to something bigger, and LTU takes a company from nothing to something,” explains Tom Kelly, executive director of Automation Alley.

Conceivably, an entrepreneur could launch through the support of LTU Collaboratory, and eventually turn to Automation Alley to scale. “It’s a synergistic relationship,” says Kelly.

For both organizations, and for the industry in general, the concept of Industry 4.0 is crucial. 

Tom Kelly. Photo by MJ Galbraith.
“This is about the digitization of manufacturing and industrial production through a collection of technologies, like cyber security, autonomous robots, virtual reality and 3-D printing,” that enhance the efficiency of manufacturing and advances productivity in new ways, Kelly explains.

“These technologies that both Automation Alley and LTU Collaboratory are focusing on are critical to the region for us to remain relevant and competitive in the world,” says Kelly. "There can be a sense of apathy in the market, especially when all the manufacturers in our region are humming along. Planning for the future in a way that will cause you to disrupt your process is important.

“I see them understanding and wanting to change, but not knowing how to do that. Automation Alley tries to be one of those voices offering the roadmap of how you can go about changing, which ties back to LTU working to create things to push into the market.”

A startup helping startups

As a startup itself, the LTU Collaboratory has faced its hurdles, especially in identifying a market niche.

“I went through our C2C program and had some ah-ha moments to help us define our direction,” says Brucki. “It was a personal validation of how that program and its canvas work.”

Securing grants, hiring the right people for the right positions, and working toward establishing a physical space to host companies have all been challenges for the Collaboratory.

LTU Collaboratory conducted independent market research in 2015 and 2016 in preparation for applying for a U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant to create an 11,000-square foot accelerator space on campus. In November 2016, the Southfield City Council approved a $1 million cash match amount toward the grant, according to Brucki. The five-acre Mark Plaza, close to the LTU campus, was purchased by the university in 2015 for $3.65 million, renamed The Enterprise Center, and will house the accelerator, Brucki says.

A focused vision shared by Southfield Centropolis and LTU Collaboratory will lead the initiative toward building out the accelerator space, and its success will benefit Southfield residents, says Freeman. “LTU is one of our largest stakeholders in the community, and when they are successful, the community is successful,” she says. “Our goal is to make improvements to the city and have a more vibrant community and to bring new technology and resources to companies. Our citizens can tap in.”

To learn more about the LTU Collaboratory, the public is invited to attend a series of Saturday morning workshops conducted by LTU Collaboratory mentor-in-residence Lee Gorman.
  • Jan 28: The Lean start-up approach
  • Feb 11: Basics of Customer Discovery
  • Feb 25:  Finance for start-ups
Workshops are 8:30 a.m.-12 noon. Space is limited. Email for more information
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