Detroit’s TechTown Poised to Transform Economy Entrepreneur Randal Charlton Leads the Way

    Randal Charlton is the director of Wayne State University’s technology and life sciences incubator, TechTown. As founder and former chairman of Asterand, a supplier of human tissue samples for medical research, Charlton is a noted entrepreneur is his own right. Last year, he was presented the Henry J. Heimlich Award for Innovative Medicine from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit health organization that promotes preventative medicine. He was also named TechTown Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005. Asterand was one of TechTown’s first tenants.

    Corp!: You were once a British journalist, weren’t you?
    Charlton: I come from a background of journalists and writers. I attended an agricultural school and sort of specialized in agricultural journalism on Fleet Street. I switched to business and became interested in technology transfer, especially in Third World countries. One thing we did was apply modern farming methods to Africa and the Middle East. We tried farming at night under floodlights on a 2,000 acre dairy farm. We discovered that animal appetites increase when they’re cooler and their milk production goes up considerably over conventional daylight methods in the hot sun.

    Corp!: What brought you to Michigan?
    Charlton: I had a friend who owned a venture capital company, based in Connecticut. We set up a bio-bank of biological samples to take advantage of new technology. Genome mapping developed in the last 10 years now allows testing of some new drugs on the species they will be used on, instead of mice or other lab animals. At the time, Governor John Engler said he would take tobacco settlement money to establish a technology initiative, including a life sciences industry. Wayne State University said, “Tell us what you want and we’ll make it happen.” They provided space, and contacts and we grew the company. Six years later we went public on the London exchange.

    Corp!: Have you experienced much culture shock since coming to the Detroit area?
    Charlton: I’ve had zero cultural shock in part because I’ve had the good fortune to travel around the world. I’ve been in 34 countries and lived in the United States for 20 years. I feel an affinity for Michigan and the U.S. culture shock is the other way round when I visit the UK and the EU. I did have culture shock in a way. When we first arrived in Detroit I went to Belle Isle -“ and found a bunch of fellows playing Cricket. That was surprising.

    Corp!: We hear a lot of commercials about how Michigan is working at becoming a high tech state. How does TechTown fit into that?
    Charlton: We sometimes we forget how good we Michiganders are at certain things. More than a third of a billion dollars in research -¦ mainly medical, is being done here every year. Our big universities are doing another $1.3 billion a year. This amount rivals any other research center in North America.

    NAFTA puts us in a great position for long term growth. Take Canada, for instance. The amount of trade the U.S. does across the Detroit River with our Canadian neighbors equals that we do with Japan on annual basis. TechTown is also working with a number of Mexican companies, for instance, to link them up with local partners especially in the auto industry. While we’re experiencing people losses in some areas, we’re actually experiencing a brain gain now. We’re gaining a technology class of green and white collar workers.

    Corp!: What are you reading? What’s on your must-read list?
    Charlton: I just bought Tom Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded. And I’m reading a truly funny gardening book about The 60-dollar Tomato.

    Corp!: Do you have a favorite area restaurant?
    Charlton: Cuisine near the Fisher Center. Seldom Blues downtown.

    Corp!: The University of Michigan has just introduced a new major field of study: informatics. What would you like to see as Wayne State’s next new major?
    Charlton: Public Health. Wayne State’s new president is a public health expert. Detroit is in a unique position to compare breast cancer, gambling addition, diabetes and other major public health issues with a major university in Windsor. This would allow a comparison between two diverse populations and medical delivery systems.