Mobility Start-ups Shine in TechStars Detroit Class of 2019

Getting in front of the right people is one of the biggest challenges for any start-up.

With a new name and wider focus, Techstars Detroit condenses three years of business development work into just three months. The latest session, completed on October 1, 2019, was the most diverse, with 60% of the companies coming from outside the US and 40% of them led by women.

While the tech and automotive industries have prioritized diversity and inclusion for years, true inclusion can be difficult. Ted Serbinski, Techstars founder and managing director, says Techstars’ even-greater diversity is the result of his organization’s five years of emphasis on it, for example, by always including women on panels and in mentoring programs.

Serbinski thinks the international reach of this year’s roster of founders shows the value of the program and of the rich ecosystem in Detroit. “Entrepreneurs who are going to start a business realized they needed to come here first,” he says.

Formerly known as Techstars Mobility, the 2019 name change to Techstars Detroit illustrates the convergence of many technologies that are applicable not only to transportation and mobility but to other sectors including manufacturing, agriculture, IoT and healthcare. It also reflects the increasing luster of the Detroit brand.

Jumpstarting start-ups

Unlike some incubators, the intense, three-month Techstars program takes on entrepreneurs and start-ups that are ready to make deals. Each founder will meet more than 200 individuals over the 90-day program. “We help accelerate their ability to build networks and communicate business ideas,” Serbinski says.

Heidi Hysell, co-founder of Alpha Drive, says: “Techstars is helping us refine our pitch, nail our market and understand our business and growth plans. It’s been pivotal in helping us make connections within the industry and understand the dynamics of the market here.”

Alpha Drive is building out platform-as-a-service tools that let artificial intelligence engineers test and validate their algorithms in simulation. It serves everyone from researchers and corporate developers to students. The core mission of her company is to build trust and safety in AI, Hysell says. “We’re starting with autonomous vehicles because the public will be interacting with them every single day.”

As Detroit increases its mojo as an innovation hub for a wider variety of sectors, it makes sense that Serbinski has shifted the focus to the city instead of the mobility sector and the city itself is eager to provide a test bed. Saleem Ahmad, CEO of Zown, was impressed with how fast the City of Detroit can move on innovative ideas. “They just want to solve an issue; they don’t want to over regulate. … There’s a very fast turnaround from when a proposal comes in to a pilot. This is an impressive showing of how a city can work,” Ahmad says.

Zown aggregates and exposes data about private parking spaces within high-traffic properties that have a lot of deliveries or ride-hailing trips, typically commercial buildings including malls, airports and apartment complexes. It recently completed a pilot with a ride-hailing partner.

Techstars revealed that there is big demand from cities for this data, as well. After solving this for a single property, the next step would be to aggregate data for a block and then even at the city level, Ahmad says.

Teporto is another company that aims to provide data to improve mobility. Teporto will analyze usage patterns for company-provided employee shuttles, optimizing routes and timetables daily in response to demand. After a successful pilot in Israel, Sergiu Lupu, CEO of Teporto, says he’s in contact with a couple of potential customers in Detroit and is planning to open an office in the United States. Lupu says the value of Techstars “lasts for a lifetime, with all the connections that are made”.

Value creation

According to Serbinski, the 54 start-ups that have gone through Techstars now have a collective valuation of approximately $5Bn. The program has raised $45M from industry partners Ford, Honda, AAA, USAA, Nationwide, and PlanetM. This year, Lear Innovation Ventures (LIV) Possibilities joined as an industry partners, and the program moved to the Lear Innovation Center.

Here’s the full roster of start-ups participating this year:

  • Airspace Link (Detroit, Mich.) is developing tools for municipalities, businesses and the public to help manage drone deliveries.
  • Alpha Drive (New York, N.Y.) has cloud-based tools for testing and validation of AI algorithms in simulation.
  • Le Car (Novi, Mich.) makes an AI-powered iPhone app providing individualized recommendations on new-car purchases for consumers.
  • Octane (Fremont, Calif.) is a mobile app that connects car enthusiasts to automotive events and to each other out on the road.
  • PPAP Manager (Chihuahua, Mexico) offers a platform to streamline the approval of packets of documents required in the automotive industry to validate production parts.
  • Ruksack (Toronto, Canada) connects travelers with local travel experts to help them plan trips.
  • Soundtrack AI (Tel Aviv, Israel) provides machine learning technology to analyze the acoustic signature of mechanical assets, including manufacturing machines and vehicle transmissions, monitoring their operational state and predicting maintenance issues in real time.
  • Teporto (Tel Aviv, Israel) will provide a simple smart platform for managing commute shuttle services, adapting routes and schedules to commuters’ needs on a daily basis.
  • Unlimited Engineering (Barcelona, Spain) is a team of engineers that joined skateboard manufacturer Loaded to sell electric skateboards.
  • Zown (Toronto, Canada) helps properties generate new revenue streams by renting out their curb space and parking to mobility providers.

Look for these tech stars to make waves at automotive and mobility events around the world.

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