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TechTown exec goes Boom!

As executive director of TechTown, Randal Charlton observed something intriguing: a third of TechTown start-ups were created by seasoned professionals, many over 50. When you think of new economy innovation, you think of post-grad techies, not retired engineers and executives. That observation gave the 71-year old entrepreneur an idea.

In November, Charlton left TechTown to create Boom! The New Economy, a start-up that promotes entrepreneurial development among the 50-plus segment. Boom! was initiated through a grant from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. He got a boost when Civic Ventures awarded Charlton the 2011 Purpose Prize -- a $100,000 grant given to entrepreneurs over 60 who use their experience and passion to address social issues.

TechTown, established in 2000 by Wayne State University, General Motors, and Henry Ford Health System, hosts about 250 companies in its business incubator and provides space for lease, coaching, mentoring, educational workshops, and access to talent and capital. Leslie Smith, Charlton's successor, says TechTown "achieved global recognition as a critical economic catalyst" under Charlton's leadership, adding that he was "a leader who had no boundaries, only the willingness to think beyond the status quo."

Charlton is a poster child for the "entrepreneur of necessity," those older professionals who are laid off or take early retirement and wonder what to do next. "Many years ago in another country and another recession, when I was broke and unemployed and had no idea what to do next, I started casting around for ideas," Charlton wrote in a blog. "I knew it was no good to continue submitting resumes. I had tried that for more than six months and had gotten nowhere. I was either too old, under-qualified, over-qualified, or simply received no response to my carefully crafted letters." Down on his luck in virtually every sense, he founded Asterand, the anchor bio-tech company in TechTown. He retired from Asterand in 2007 and was tapped to lead TechTown.

"From our perspective, Randal was literally the flintlock, the catalytic agent (for TechTown)," says Lesa Mitchell, a vice president with the Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurial development.

Kauffman, based in Kansas City, works with the New Economy Initiative in Southeast Michigan. TechTown, Mitchell says, "needed to be energized, needed to have hope, needed to have opportunities clarified for the community." Charlton was the "right person (at the) right place, right time. ... Randal is a visionary. That's why he created Asterand (and) fits into our class of immigrant entrepreneurs -- a guy from the UK lands in Detroit and sees things from an outsider's view rather than an insiders view: opportunity instead of problems. We have a great deal of respect for him and have worked with him in many different ways over the past couple years."

Mitchell says she wasn't surprised to learn about the older entrepreneurs at TechTown, nor questions the viability of Boom!, which she believes is the first such initiative in the nation.

"There's a myth, because of Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook), et al, about the average age of entrepreneurs," she says. Kauffman Foundation statistics indicate the average age of entrepreneurs is 39. Because of Southeast Michigan's demographics, it's likely that the average age is older. Also, she adds, many of the new entrepreneurs nationally tend to be "entrepreneurs of necessity, not entrepreneurs of wish."

Sergio Mazza, founder and CEO of SenSound, one of the first tenants of TechTown, was "thrilled" when Charlton became executive director of TechTown. "I was not surprised that he did as well with it as he did, but it still exceeded my expectations."

TechTown was literally "an empty shell without a lot of activity" other than Asterand, SenSound, and a handful of start-ups when Charlton took over. "He was the one who took the idea and made it blossom. Certainly others did the work to plant it there, but it wasn't exactly a thriving entrepreneurial community until Randal turned it into what it is today."

Mazza, a 50-plus entrepreneur, believes Boom! may very well be an idea whose time has come. "In many ways, the older demographic has different sets of strengths and weaknesses than younger entrepreneurs. Their strength is more life experience and depth of expertise in a given market space." Often, they lack technology skills and entrepreneurial skills. In addition to technology skills, younger entrepreneurs have the advantage of energy, new ideas, and a perspective on emerging markets. "They're completely conversant with all the tools and are very smart with how to use them. What they lack is life experience and depth of knowledge in a given market space." Mazza adds.

Prior to leaving TechTown, Charlton hosted a series of workshops for would-be entrepreneurs over 50 called Boom! The Entrepreneur. The workshops were consistent sellouts and convinced him that older professionals want to develop new companies but don't know how; they need mentoring and funding, and need an internship. That internship might possibly be found in a firm with considerably younger workers.

"TechTown has been looking at the design of workplaces to encourage interaction and innovation (among different age groups) which many believe is critical to interdisciplinary company development,"  Charlton explains. "Put simply, how do you get the artist, the biologist and the chemist to talk to each other regardless of age? Take a look in any Starbucks and you will see Gen X and Gen Y as well as baby boomers and even the silent generation tapping away on their computers but not talking to each other."

Researchers have shown that diversity enhances creativity across all lines of cultural difference; age being a kind of frontier for the new economy. "The best entrepreneurial ecosystems are the most diverse and have the greatest level of velocity," Mitchell explains. "... Diversity breeds innovation. What Randal is doing is not so unusual in high velocity entrepreneurial ecosystems. It's probably unusual for where he is."

While it may have a lower velocity than many other markets, Southeast Michigan's entrepreneurial community is vital, Charlton says, especially considering its ability to survive, even thrive, in the recent recession."It's entrepreneurship that's going to get us out of the mess we're in and the 50-plus are going to contribute to entrepreneurship; they are going to help create jobs."

Though Charlton's focus at TechTown was Detroit-area entrepreneurs, his vision has always been regional. Shortly after Pfizer announced plans to leave Ann Arbor, he joined University of Michigan and civic leaders to help fill the void, and has long believed that the entrepreneurial region is not only Southeast Michigan, but Ontario as well.

"I do not see the region as stopping at the Detroit River. I see our strength being together with Windsor and southern Ontario. We have a really wonderful strategic opportunity to become a crucial inland trading post -- that, after all, is what the French figured out when they settled. There is enormous benefit to be gained from Canadian-American collaboration."

The Port of Detroit, as a foreign trade zone, gives the region tremendous opportunity, he says. "In this global economy we're as well-situated as we could possibly be. If you think about it, we're better situated than some of the more obvious places on either coast. If you deliver a product to Detroit, you have access to roads throughout the North American Free Trade Zone... it's the biggest trading block in the world. We have a lot of advantages, but we're not taking advantage of them."

Nowhere else does "just a ribbon of water" separate two nations who compete and collaborate as trading partners, he adds.

Dennis Archambault is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode.

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