RobotTown organizers build a new strategy
Focus is industry contests, events
Organizers of RobotTown Inc. are taking a new approach to build traction as a player in the local robotics industry before rolling out the research consortium, laboratory and education center proposal announced last year.
Co-founder and President Mark Salamango of RobotTown said the Michigan Economic Development Corp. could award RobotTown up to a $50,000 matching funds grant, which its executives may allocate in part toward microgrants for students or businesses with robotics projects. The MEDC reviewed that request but asked RobotTown on Friday to submit a new business plan.
RobotTown was also a co-sponsor of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International annual Driverless Car Summit last week at the MotorCity Casino Hotel.
The new approach is a bit more modest than the push for a $10 million investment to build out a complete living laboratory concept as discussed last year. But Salamango and co-founder/senior strategist Corey Clothier said the organization is building new contacts and drawing more support from the business community by getting involved in industry events first.
"The focus is becoming fluid while we are working on getting larger sums of money together," Clothier said. "We're working on programs that help the robotics market, but the vision continues to be a living laboratory campus."
The nonprofit RobotTown has seen a few challenges. The nonprofit New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan rejected its application for $100,000 in planning grant funding, and the multi-agency federal Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative to invest in local economic growth and job creation hasn't responded to RobotTown's $250,000 request for pilot program funds. The MEDC fund request also dates back to last year.
"We hadn't heard anything on this request in about a year... it seemed the project had died. But there's now a renewed interest," said Ron Moffett, managing director of the MEDC's Michigan Defense Center. "So we're just asking to see a new business plan -- one that reflects the changes we've seen in the robotics market for the defense industry since then."
RobotTown also recently backed off a prospect of using the former Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit, after it became clear that would involve more than $1 million in yearly operating costs.
But networking has helped. Salamango said Detroit advertising firm Gyro Creative Group has agreed to work pro bono to help coordinate a crowdfunding campaign for RobotTown, which could launch later this year through Kickstarter.com. Salamango said the organization has been approached by officials in Ann Arbor and Farmington about prospective locations for RobotTown.
Salamango said he still would like to house the test center in Detroit, but talks with the city have gone slowly in recent months. He hopes to find a location that is accessible to major robotics and technology companies in the region that are collaborating on RobotTown, and to some of the more cash-strapped local school districts who could benefit from it as an educational resource.
Advances don't often come from large companies, "so it makes sense to be also helping that small business or group of students or friends in a garage, who have developed an innovation with commercial applications," he said.
Salamango said RobotTown also expects to coordinate with the U.S. Army's Autonomous Robotics for Installation and Base Operations, a program of the Joint Center for Robotics at the Tacom Life Cycle Management Command in Warren, on possible use of its robotic ground vehicle technology.
The Joint Center put out a solicitation request to industry last year, to follow up on previous government-funded research and help develop and field a fleet of autonomous vehicles that can assist in transportation and security patrols on military bases. The Army expects to test robotic vehicles at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and RobotTown could apply the same systems or technology for civilian uses at its campus.
James Overholt, senior robotics research scientist at the Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren, originally proposed the Robot Town concept and sits on a board of advisers to the nonprofit. The organization still hopes to have a preliminary version of Robot Town operating by October 2014.
Chad Halcom: (313) 446-6796, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @chadhalcom