Informal business incubators spring up in the city

DETROIT (AP) — A number of small and informal business incubators have opened in Detroit, offering inexpensive space and some services to companies that are trying to get going.

These are besides the larger, government or agency-sponsored incubators in the region such as Ann Arbor SPARK, TechTown in Detroit, and the Macomb Oakland University Incubator.

The lesser-known incubators that have opened in Detroit over the past couple of years include Ponyride on the city’s near-west side, the Elevator Building in the east riverfront district, and the Green Garage in Midtown.

These informal clusters of entrepreneurs occupy a niche somewhere in between formal incubators and suburban industrial parks, the Detroit Free Press reported Sunday. It said they offer few formal services but have cheap space in collaborative environments that encourage or even demand working together.

“This has become more of what we call a collaboration space,” Ponyride owner Phil Cooley said. “We intentionally didn’t put walls up because we wanted people to work together and interact. ... The idea is to keep conversation” going.

The buildings housing these projects tend to be rough-edged, usually former industrial sites, with rents below market or subsidized by the owners. The tenants say they appreciate the cheap rent, urban-chic ambience and the chance to meet like-minded entrepreneurs.

“It’s always good to have a collaborative environment,” said Phillip Perkins, who works for Context Furniture in Ponyride. “People come down here and they’re saying, ‘I’m looking to do this, I just don’t know how to approach it.’ So this person scratches this person, scratches this person and then everything comes together.”

The informal incubators differ from more formal ones that often are attached to universities or local governments in that they don’t offer formal mentoring and training, potential leads on financing or other hallmarks of the classic business accelerator. They nonetheless are busy.

Ponyride and the Elevator Building house about 50 tenants combined.

Those at Ponyride include the Detroit Denim jeans manufacturer, the En Garde fencing studio, the Context Furniture manufacturer, and the Stukenborg Press typeset letterpress printer.

Elevator Building tenants include the Work, a video production company; the Urban Solace yoga studio; the nonprofit educational consultant Excellent Schools Detroit; and Semseg, a company offering Segway tours of Detroit.

“The location is fantastic,” said Dan Varner, chief executive of Excellent Schools Detroit. “We can be connected to downtown and Midtown without having to pay the price of downtown and Midtown. And the space is very cool.”