By Michael F. Carmichael
July 19, 2012
The incubator got its start - and its name: TechTown - as a way to capitalize on promising research projects at Wayne State University in midtown Detroit.
That was then, before the bottom fell out of Detroit, the state of Michigan and the rest of the country.
Today Michigan is in the second year of its “reinvention,” while TechTown is way ahead of it. According to its president and CEO Leslie Smith, since 2007 the no-longer-just-tech incubator “has provided support to 647 companies, which have created 1,085 jobs.”
One of the key words in that statement is “support.”
And that leads us to “Macho Men and the Women Who Love Them.”
Macho Men is the brainchild of Maria Costa, a 36 year-old Latina who grew up in the Hispanic section of Detroit, moved to Los Angeles, became a sought-after television and movie actress comedian and model, and creator of a one-woman performance that looks into the relationships of women and their respective ultra-macho men - including her father, transsexual brother and her mother-in-law. Costa is backed up by a salsa band and a dance troupe.
Costa and her men are the recipient of a starter grant from TechTown that will help her and her company, Oro (“gold” in Spanish - and a prominent decorative element in her office) develop the screenplay for a multi-million dollar movie production.
How did Costa make the leap back to the Detroit area from Los Angeles? Family - and opportunity. “We heard on the radio that TechTown was open to hearing from all kinds of entrepreneurs so we decided to go by there.” Actually, it was Costa’s partner Francisco Segovia who went and reported back that “There are some really good things happening over there and I think they can support our business.”
They filled out the necessary paperwork, which included “our initial business plan, which was entirely too long and boring,” Costa reports, “but they said ‘there’s a lot of potential here and we’d like to work with you.’ So, they took us under their wing.”
Costa says that in her “class” of companies incubating at TechTown are a Web-based company that serves as a kind of matchmaker for other companies looking for creative people such as Web designers or movie cameramen; a company making strides in breast cancer detection research and one involved with adding animal fat to improve diesel fuel. Those companies and others recently came together to hear Gene Sperling, director of the White House National Economic Council and Assistant to the president for Economic Policy. Sperling and Greg Nelson, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, said, according to a TechTown release, their purpose in meeting with the group was to gain insight and ideas about how the White House can better support entrepreneurship in economically challenged urban communities like Detroit.
“What I really want is to hear more about you and your companies,” Sperling said. “I want to better understand your experience how you have worked with TechTown.”
Costa says that much of her entrepreneurial spirit comes from her relatives. An uncle owns several local businesses and “he essentially raised me. He was a pharmacist at Ford Hospital and he loves medicine. He’s always teaching me about how my body works and what kinds of vitamins to take. He owned a photo shop for many years, and I worked there from when I was 5 to about 12.”
Her uncle also encouraged the business side of her entrepreneurial spirit. “He always taught me about business. He would say ‘you live in America and here you can do anything you want to do. All you have to do is put your mind to it and work hard.'”
The support of TechTown is important, says Costa, “because I’m in a community with other entrepreneurs, they understand that side of me and they support our business. That has been really wonderful.”
One form TechTown’s support takes is coaching. “We have two, actually,” explains Costa. “Either it’s like they said - that we showed a lot of potential - or else,” she laughs, “that we were just too much of a headache for one.”
One specific benefit of her coaching is that her business plan, instead of being 25 pages of “boring” is now “a tight 10 pages. It’s clear, it’s concise. I think it really helps people who don’t understand entertainment to understand how it can be profit generating, specifically through the live content that we do, from ticket sales. It shows investors the big picture of how our live audiences will support the film - and that lowers risk.”
TechTown helps in other ways as well. “We needed some help to get a message out to a bunch of community organizations that they could pass along to their base. It was a challenge to us so we called TechTown and they referred us to someone who did it in five minutes.”
Getting a young business under way, particularly one that is based on a talented entertainer’s vision - and newly tightened business plan - can be daunting. Having a high profile foundation recognize its value can do a great deal to instill confidence not only in the business owner but in future angel investors.
That is why, when the Kresge Foundation awarded Oro and Costa $25,000 recently, it was a much bigger deal than just the money. “They understand how my work empowers the community,” Costa says. “The grant will support us in moving forward, in development and completion of the screenplay. It will also help with the financing for the PBS special (based on the Macho Men performance).”
Part of the Kresge money, Costa says, “will be reinvested in the live show.” TechTown sponsored a preview of the show June 29 at the University of Michigan’s Detroit Center, Orchestra Place. This will be followed by the general audience local premier of Macho Men at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on July 26. Costa hopes to mount the performance at even larger venues, “a 1,500 seater perhaps after that,” she says, before taking the show on the road. Macho Men has already played to sell-out audiences in six countries as well as the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, home of the Oscar telecast.
“Growing up in southwest Detroit has really influenced my work creatively,” Costa says. “Having a Middle Eastern, a Caucasian and Latino neighbors I think gave me a deep-seated passion to want to unite people through my work.”
Another part of the Kresge grant will go to finishing the movie script for Macho Men. Costa will then set up a film production company for her estimated $4 million-plus venture.
“We’re particularly excited to be launching a film company in Detroit. While it’s still tough to get production incentives for a larger film, for a smaller independent film they’re being approved and, from what I understand they give you the funding up front so a lot of smaller projects are being funded.”
Costa compares what she has to do to get funding to the vaudeville act of spinning several dinner plates on poles simultaneously. “Eventually one of those plates is going to keep spinning, and hopefully two or three of them.”
More information on Costa and her Macho Men is available at www.mariacosta.com.