Techstars Mobility Launches with Office at Ford Field, New Partners
At long last, the inaugural session of the Techstars Mobility program officially launched Tuesday from its 10,000-square-foot office at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. Ten companies working on a range of mobility-related products and services will spend the next three months developing their ideas in Detroit, culminating with a demo day on Sept. 10.
Ted Serbinski, who runs the program, said, “We saw applications from every continent except Antarctica. It was an overwhelming response.”
Techstars sought entrepreneurs who were working in a few major areas—safety, vehicle maintenance, logistics/fleet management, and car sharing/ride sharing—and Serbinski said most of the applicants were focused on hardware, software, or material sciences. Applicants represented nearly every corner of the country, though Serbinski said there were surprisingly few from Michigan—maybe five percent, he estimated. The 10 companies chosen for the first cohort will receive $118,000 in seed funding in exchange for 7 to 10 percent equity while undergoing extensive coaching and mentorship.
Techstars Mobility also counts a number of heavy hitters as industry partners: Ford, Magna International, Verizon Telematics, Honda R&D Americas, Munich Reinsurance America, Dana Holding Corporation, and McDonald’s have been announced so far.
“It seems like the entire world is focused on mobility,” Serbinski said, and he’s got a point: Even companies you wouldn’t expect to be at the forefront of mobility, like McDonald’s, are keenly interested in areas like transportation and logistics that are ripe for innovation. The Techstars Mobility office will also serve as the unofficial downtown outpost for the program’s corporate partners.
As part of the Techstars Mobility program, there are also community partnerships. Fontinalis is a partner, and Serbinski announced last week that Automation Alley and the Detroit Technology Exchange are also joining the fold.
Techstars Mobility is also dabbling in office tech. It will use Oblong’s Mezzanine technology to host collaborative conference calls and provide Oblong with space inside the Techstars office, Oblong’s second Midwest location. In addition, the program is working with PivotDesk, a Techstars Boulder alum, to connect businesses in search of space with empty desks in the office, particularly during the months the program isn’t running. Serbinski said specific information on pricing and availability will be posted later this summer.
When I stopped by the Techstars Mobility office yesterday, I was able to talk with a few of the program’s participants. Though they’re all working on different technologies, they unanimously said Detroit was so far more fun and friendly than media reports had led them to believe. Here’s a more detailed look at what they hope to accomplish while in Detroit:
—Ansik: Shiva Bhardwaj, Ansik’s CEO, said the Kitchener, Ontario-based company has created something called the ShockLock, a device that mechanics can use to hold hoods and trunks open. Even in these modern times, Bhardwaj said mechanics are prone to using vice grips or even a broom stick to keep the hood open during a repair, which can be dangerous. (Last year alone, 11,000 injuries were reported by mechanics doing just that.) Ansik is also developing PitStop, a Bluetooth-powered dongle that plugs into your car, generates a diagnostic report, and then takes that report and shops it around to local mechanics to get bids on the repair work.
Bhardwaj is no stranger to the way mechanic businesses work—his father owns repair shops in Canada—and he describes them as being trust-based, where relationships rule. He spent time after college in Silicon Valley, but his background led him to want to take a swing at innovating in what he describes as a “very old-school industry.”
—CDL Warrior: Headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA, CDL Warrior has created an app that helps truckers manage their time, communications, and compliance. They can also use it to find parking, automate logbooks, and improve fleet productivity and earnings.
—Classics & Exotics: Have you ever wanted to rent a Lamborghini Gallardo and tool around the countryside? Who hasn’t, right? Now, owners of fancy cars can use the Classics & Exotics online platform to rent out their vehicles to “highly qualified individuals,” and consumers can use the platform to search the collection of cars for rent.
Owners and renters can connect on the site and ask each other questions, and CEO Peter Zawadzki said there are other opportunities outside of peer-to-peer transactions. Like a car show writ large, owners can showcase their vehicles for rent to the film industry or promotional outfits, and they can also choose to rent their cars but remain in the driver’s seat—Zawadzki imagines weddings where the car owners would chauffeur the bride and groom.
Classics & Exotics, based in Cape Cod, MA, screens the driving records of potential renters and runs criminal background checks to keep the riff raff out, and it also tracks safety through real-time analytics, rewarding safe drivers with discounts. Owners can specify how they want their babies to be treated—no regular fuel, for instance—and pricing, and the owners have the final say on who is approved to rent their vehicles.
Zawadzki said he and his co-founders are thrilled to be in Detroit—he admits to initially feeling wary due to all the bad press the city gets nationally—and said the company hopes to bring the joy of driving to Millennials. “We want to introduce a new generation to classic car ownership and appreciation,” he said.
—Cosmos Browser: Using technologies already in your phone, Cosmos offers an Internet browser that works via SMS, no wifi or data package required. Though details on its website are scarce, the company is currently beta-testing its technology.
—Elegus Technologies: Detroit-based Elegus Technologies, a University of Michigan spin-out, has designed a nanoscale fiber separator membrane for car batteries capable of withstanding demanding operating conditions and high currents, which makes driving safer and more efficient.
—GearBrake: Headquartered in Kentucky, GearBrake has developed brake light modules for motorcycles that light up automatically as soon as the driver lets up on the throttle and slows down. (Unlike cars, motorcycle brakes can be engaged without activating the brake lights.) CEO Chris Bailey said his product can reduce the risk of rear-end collisions with motorcycles by 90 percent.
—Motoroso: Motoroso’s website connects motorsports enthusiasts by combining content, community, and commerce to help them discover and buy related products, according to CEO Alex Littlewood, who cited Houzz as an example of how the business model works. “We’re focused on the enthusiast community, which is interested in the vehicle as a lifestyle,” he added. “We help them find things they’re aspiring to own.” This summer, the Silicon Valley-based company is working to acquire as many users as possible, as well as recruit more brands to make a profile on the site. (More than 200 brands are already on Motoroso.)
—My Dealer Service: Denver, CO-based MDS offers automotive service departments a way to connect with customers and manage workflow online. It’s a tough nut to crack historically, and CEO Jon Rossi said the company differentiates itself by focusing on the customer. MDS research found that people want to communicate with their mechanics electronically, but they don’t want to be bombarded with marketing emails and texts. “We came up with a way to package workflow solutions to the dealership,” Rossi said. “And we take a passive, white-glove approach in our communications with the customer.”
MDS customers get real-time photos of the work being done on their cars as it progresses. If the mechanic suggests a new part or repair, MDS customers will get a picture of the affected area so they know they’re not being taken for a ride, and they have the ability to approve the suggested repair on the spot from their mobile devices.
—WISE Systems: Headquartered in Boston, WISE Systems is beta-testing its logistics software, which provides real-time routing and analytics data to help on-demand delivery companies assign, schedule, and adjust service, taking care of customers more effectively.
—SPLT: When I was in college in the pre-Internet 1990s, we had a huge board in the student union that displayed index cards with details and contact information belonging to people who were looking to share rides. Splitting Fares has taken that concept and transformed it into an easy-to-use app called SPLT with a beautifully uncluttered user interface. SPLT is designed to connect people traveling similar routes so they can share the taxi fare or cost of gas, save money, reduce traffic and emissions, and change the way people meet and move.
CEO Anya Babbitt says in New York City alone, where the company is based, 485,000 taxi rides are taken per day, and that figure doesn’t account for all people using Uber, Lyft, and other similar services. SPLT makes its money by charging a transaction fee equal to 10 percent of the fare, and it’s transportation agnostic, meaning it can be used whether you’re a taxi rider or the owner of a vehicle.
A SPLT user can link their profile to their Facebook or LinkedIn pages so their fellow riders can see who they’d be traveling with. Commuters can also use SPLT to find enough riders to use the HOV lanes. “It eliminates the creep factor,” Babbitt said. “Single people tell us it’s the best form of speed dating.”
Work on SPLT started last October, and things are already moving quickly. The company is currently in the middle of a private beta test, and it plans to launch publicly in conjunction with the Techstars Mobility demo day in September. “We intend to spark and be a part of the conversation about the future of transportation,” Babbitt said.