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Meet Grand Circus, A Startup That Aims To Be Detroit’s General Assembly

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Gillmor Gang Live 08.16.13 (TCTV)

Detroit’s startup row just got a new tenant. Housed in the recently renovated Broderick Tower, Grand Circus just set up shop with the stated goal of elevating the Detroit tech community. The 15,000-square-foot space will soon house tech training, events, and co-working space for up to 49 entrepreneurs — something that will go a long way in Detroit’s nascent startup scene.

“The Detroit tech scene is booming and the supply of talent simply can’t keep up – a characteristic of tech markets everywhere,” Grand Circus CEO and co-founder Damien Rocchi said. “Unlike other markets, however, Detroit has a vibe and hustle that’s unique, and there’s the opportunity to have a huge impact. We both have a personal connection to the area and are thrilled to be part of creating something that’s really making an impact in the city.”

Detroit’s companies and learning institutions have dabbled in tech training in the past. And then there are of course a handful of for-profit learning centers in the area that will award a buyer with a useless certification in PowerPoint or Lotus Notes. But Grand Circus is something totally new to Detroit. Following in the footsteps of NYC’s General Assembly and Chicago’s 1871, Grand Circus has lofty ambitions.

Rocchi tells me “the real difference is we plan on playing a real prominent role in the city — more so than General Assembly in New York. We’re very focused on Detroit and the surrounding metro region.”

Rocchi and co-founder Bradley Hoos both have ties to the Michigan area. Rocchi is a native Australian and Brad a boomerang Michigander who’s spent the last seven years in Chicago working with startups. Prior to forming Grand Circus, Rocchi worked at Fairfax Business Media in Australia where he managed a group of digital businesses dealing in research & data, professional education, and digital news.

Located across from Detroit’s historic Grand Circus Park (hence the name), Grand Circus takes up three stories of the Broderick Tower. The building stood vacant for decades, rotting like so many other looming skyscrapers left over from Detroit’s glory days. Just last November the tower opened its doors. According to Mlive.com, all 126 new apartments were claimed in just five days.

grand circusGrand Circus’s location is key. The Broderick Tower is located right next to the Madison Building — the much-publicized building housing DVP, Bizdom and dozens of startups and even a sales office for Twitter. The Madison is the heart of Detroit’s startup revival.

Grand Circus is funded in part by Detroit Venture Partners and is housed in Dan Gilbert’s corner of downtown Detroit.

As Josh Linkner, DVP’s managing partner, explained to me, the Madison was always designed to be an up-and-out workspace. DVP and Bizdom, both located in the Madison, help young companies get their footing, and then like a mother bird, eventually push them out of the nest when they’re ready to fly.

Grand Circus will no doubt absorb a lot of the overflow and allow even more young companies to relocate to downtown. There is co-working space for up to 49 entrepreneurs with space already filling up. Apply for space on the website here. Doors open on September 16.

grand circus1At launch the depth of the training isn’t as complex as that offered by General Assembly. Thirty classes will be offered this fall, and the subjects are broad and basic. Think “Build an Android App,” “become a Salesforce developer,” and, for the community-ed crowd, a seminar called “Introduction to the Internet.”

“Our curriculum is designed to appeal to a variety of backgrounds and experiences,” Rocchi said. “We largely focus on cutting-edge technology, but also offer beginner offerings designed to remove the ‘wall of intimidation’ associated with technology newbies. The seminar ‘Intro to the Internet,’ for example, is a beginner course for people who want to get into tech but don’t know where to start.”

Grand Circus tapped Michigan talent to teach these courses, most notably Terry Cross, a beloved Detroit angel investor and Wayne State University’s first and current Executive in Residence for Entrepreneurship. His three-hour seminar on creating a business plan is only $30. Most classes are 10-12 week programs that cost $3,400 and are taught by local professionals from Detroit Labs, Adobe, Apigee and more.

Right now, at launch, Grand Circus seems rather simplistic. The courses are basic and there are only a few to choose from. Worse yet, they’re not proven as a trusted educator or startup partner. But that will come in time. Downtown Detroit needs a space like this if it is to be the startup destination it aims to be.

Detroit is hungry for web startups and Dan Gilbert’s venture arm is seemingly willing to give them the cash and resources needed.

“There’s a big gap that’s slowing down Michigan’s recovery,” said Linkner. “Startups are trying to hire specific people with tech skills. Then there are underemployed people who lack the skills needed. Grand Circus is a modern training tech academy.

“There are other tech training schools.” he added. “This is a relevant modern practical approach. The people who come out of here will get the best high-paying jobs. The instructors are actual industry leaders currently working and not some instructors hiding in academia.”

Michigan’s startup community is quickly maturing. Venture funding in the state is exploding, as well. 2011 saw a record year for venture fundraising, and in 2012, firms invested $232 million over 47 deals. It was a dramatic increase over 2011 levels where less than $100 million was invested. This spike caused the state’s national ranking to jump 10 spots, making it the 15th most prolific state in terms of capital investments.

Barred from talking specifics, the founders tell me that DVP is Grand Circus’s lead investor. The startup is also funded by Invest Detroit and received funds from the area’s Creative Corridor Incentive Fund.

Detroit’s startup culture is hungry. And Grand Circus should go a long way to satisfy the craving. But its success is not guaranteed. Like the struggling city it calls home, Grand Circus’s future will be determined solely on the tenacity of its leaders. The startup isn’t just making an app or creating a service. They’ve set out to reinvent education and co-working in one of the most unlikely places. And we wish them nothing but the best.

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