Have an Idea to Fix Transportation in Detroit? You Could Win $250K

If there’s one thing that makes Detroiters’ blood boil, it’s when people from out of town parachute into the city full of plans on how to supposedly improve the lives of Motor City residents—without ever consulting said residents before plowing ahead.

It’s incredibly condescending, usually, and often smacks of paternalism. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about bringing new ventures to town, most Detroiters agree. Good thing Nima Adelkhani—chief innovation evangelist with Idea Market, a San Francisco-based organization that crowdsources pre-funded concepts to create “world-changing companies” and then finds entrepreneurs to bring those concepts to market—has deliberately tried to go about it the right way.

In town this week to announce the long-incubating Detroit Transportation Challenge, Adelkhani comes by his enthusiasm for Detroit honestly. A native of Germany, the very first professional football game he watched after moving to the United States as a kid was a Detroit Lions game. Those were the Barry Sanders years, and the excitement of the moment imprinted a lifelong love of the Lions upon his soul. (And make no mistake—if you’re going to hang in there with the Lions year after disappointing year, that affection definitely comes from deep inside. In fact, when Adelkhani officially announced the challenge at the Techonomy conference this week, he was wearing a Lions jersey he’s had for decades.)

Adelkhani also loves big-body American cars of the kind Detroit has perfected: Cadillacs, mostly. But perhaps most endearing is the way he fairly crackles with the enthusiasm he feels toward the promise and possibilities Detroit holds, with a refreshing lack of Silicon Valley pretension or the spirit of “Nu Colonialism” that too often colors the plans of outsiders.

So when he saw Idea Market’s lead investor, AOL founder Steve Case, speak at an event in California last year about his efforts with the Rise of the Rest tour, Adelkhani became intrigued with Detroit all over again.

“I got goosebumps,” Adelkhani said, recalling Case’s speech. “Right away, I wanted to do something.”

He began cold-emailing various Detroit movers and shakers, and he had the supreme good fortune to connect with Alisyn Malek, an investment banker with GM Ventures. Not only was Malek one of Crain’s Detroit’s “Twenty in Their 20s,” an honor given to the highest young achievers in local business, but she’s also a staunch opponent of carpet-bagging. If it wasn’t clear already, Malek further disabused him of any “Bay Area Hero Saves Detroit” fantasies.

Malek also introduced Adelkhani to an incredible number of local entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers, government officials, and tons of other people with a stake in Detroit’s startup scene. Adelkhani’s enthusiasm grew, and he took his ideas on the road to South by Southwest last spring. He invited the crowd at Idea Market’s outpost there to submit their ideas for innovative ways to improve Detroit.

Adelkhani said he got 974 submissions, with answers ranging from micro-lending and micro-manufacturing to workforce retraining and educational reforms. He decided to take an approach inspired by X Prize and launch a challenge to entrepreneurs. He flew into Detroit in May and hosted a reception with 35 local thought leaders to brainstorm the six potential Detroit challenge verticals he had pulled from the SXSW submissions.

Transportation got the highest score among the six verticals he pitched to those gathered at the reception, so Adelkhani set about crafting a challenge around how to improve transportation in Detroit. The challenge, he said, “is a call to everyone everywhere to come to Detroit and build a solution.” It can involve mass transit, but it doesn’t have to. Essentially, it just has to be a viable idea that gets people to and from work more easily and efficiently, or improves the public transit system. (To read Adelkhani’s blog post about the genesis of the challenge, click here.)

Those who want to participate in the challenge have until Dec. 15, 2015 to submit their ideas. The winning idea will be announced in January, and the winner will receive up to $250,000 in funding and mentoring toward establishing a startup in Detroit. Idea Market will take a piece of equity in the company in exchange for funding, and Mission Throttle and Invest Detroit are supporting sponsors of the transportation challenge.

“Our vision is, we want to do these Detroit challenges quarterly, with transportation being the first one,” Adelkhani said. “We’re also in talks to do them in other cities. It’s kind of a different model from what we do normally.”

Adelkhani has hired Bill Thomason, a Detroit native, serial entrepreneur, and venture capital veteran, to oversee the Detroit Transportation Challenge. Before moving from Silicon Valley back to Detroit a few years ago to care for his ailing parents, Thomason worked for JP Morgan, Taurum Capital Partners, and Parnassus Investments, among others.

“My job is to make sure, when the idea is selected, that the team will execute what it’s supposed to execute,” Thomason said. “I started my first business as a junior at Michigan State University, and I sold it by the time I was 25. That’s how I got into entrepreneurship. I did everything wrong, but I had some amazing advisers, so I’m trying to bring what I’ve learned back to Detroit—whatever that may look like.”

“This is our beta test,” Adelkhani explained. “We know the model works, but not when it’s social impact or location-based. This is a hybrid between creating impact, profitability, and scalability.”

Adelkhani has become so fond of Detroit that he’s planning to buy a place to live here. “I’m almost in shock,” he said. “The cost of living here is 30 to 40 percent below what it is in San Francisco. What I’m paying for a loft here on Air BnB is what I’d pay for a parking space in San Francisco. The American Dream of owning property and starting a business is possible here. In San Francisco—yes, life is good, but you’re not really getting anywhere. How can you save 20 percent for a down payment on a $1 million fixer-upper?”

Thomason agreed that Detroit has its charms, and it’s become a much different city since he moved away 20 years ago. He sees similarities between the rise of the Bay Area as an economic powerhouse and what Detroit might be capable of.

“San Francisco was a sleepy little coastal town until the gold rush hit,” Thomason said. “Almost overnight, it became a city of a million people. They came to strike it rich, but out of those millions of people, how many actually hit gold? Instead, millionaires were created from service providers. The people making real money were those selling pots, blue jeans, and equipment. That might be where Detroit is headed. You probably won’t see another Facebook here, but there will be something big.”

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