Techstars Expands Programs for Early-Stage Michigan Entrepreneurs

Techstars has been doing a bit of revamping in the last year—it acquired and merged networks with UP Global, the nonprofit organization behind Startup Weekend; it launched a retail startup accelerator in partnership with Target in Minneapolis and a mobility startup accelerator in Detroit; pulled the plug on a robotics accelerator in San Diego; and it closed on a third investment fund valued at $150 million, bringing the total amount of capital under Techstars management to $300 million.

This week, Techstars announced it is expanding programming in Detroit to include a “Techstars-light” pre-accelerator called Startup Next and a free, weeklong event in May catering to entrepreneurs—particularly aspiring startups that are outside of the Motor City’s downtown business district.

“With the UP Global acquisition, Techstars has three products for entrepreneurs: community-driven events for entrepreneurs to come together, like Startup Weekend; 23 accelerator programs around the world; and capital funds to invest in startups,” said Ted Serbinski, who runs the Techstars Mobility accelerator in Detroit. “Techstars can now help entrepreneurs from inspiration to IPO.”

Serbinski said Techstars’ decision to locate a mobility-focused accelerator in Detroit made sense because, from a regional standpoint, many of our strengths are tied to the auto industry. However, upon initiating the program in Detroit, Techstars realized it might be missing a bigger opportunity to engage.

“What we saw with Techstars Detroit was significant interest in being in the program, which was our first indicator that people really want to come to Detroit to build their businesses,” he said. “Over 300 mentors reached out to engage with Techstars Mobility, and not all of them were in the mobility sector. When we have that many people who want to help, it made sense to expand programming. And with news of Bizdom shutting down, there wasn’t really a program locally to help entrepreneurs pre-accelerate.”

Despite the widespread interest in Techstars Mobility when it was announced last year, Serbinski said he didn’t see enough local applications to the accelerator: “The mobility program was successful, and we’re really excited about this year’s cohort, but we wanted a more general program to help build the ecosystem.”

Kyle Bazzy, Startup Next’s director, added, “The Techstars playbook has evolved and boiled down to a science what startups need to do and at what stage.”

Despite almost no promotion of the program, Bazzy said Startup Next—which began as a program of Seattle-based UP Global, now known as Techstars Community Programs—attracted 139 applicants for its inaugural run. Eight startups, all local, were eventually selected. Participants include Ash & Anvil, an online retailer of shirts for “shorter guys”; My SwimPro, a FitBit-style tracker for swimmers and triathletes; and Patronicity, a crowdfunding platform for civic improvement projects.

Starting this month, the Startup Next cohort will gather for six weekly sessions lasting three hours each; participants will also get dedicated space in the Techstars Mobility headquarters at Ford Field. Each session includes an expert speaker, team pitches, and one-on-one mentorship. At the end of the six weeks, participants will pitch investors or apply to an incubator for further development. Startup Next doesn’t take any equity from the startups in its program, nor does it offer them money.

“Startup Next is geared toward companies on the cusp of investor or accelerator interest, and they just need that one mentor to shape their pitch or help their customer discovery process,” Bazzy said, explaining that many of the program’s participants are established startups that have one or two obstacles they need to overcome. “The whole goal is to bring the ones that are ready into the limelight of the Techstars global community. At the end, hopefully we can show their transformation over six weeks and give them the Techstars seal, which adds a lot of credibility. ”

Bazzy describes the other new initiative, Startup Week, as something akin to SXSW—the Austin,TX festival of music, culture, and technology—for Detroit. “It’s going to be bananas,” he said. “We’ve got some great underwriters involved that want to see Detroit make it happen, and that’s how we’re able to offer it for free.”

The event, which runs May 23-May 27, is open to the public.

Bazzy said Startup Week will include hackathons, events that highlight entrepreneurs in Detroit’s non-downtown neighborhoods, food, music, civic initiatives, and more. He stressed that the event is open not only to Detroiters, but entrepreneurs from Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and elsewhere in Michigan because more collaboration is needed.

“We want to celebrate the hell out of what’s happening in Detroit,” Bazzy said, “but our ecosystem is fragmented. We’ve made leaps and bounds over the past five years, but we still have a long way to go. Because we have underwriters and are free from a corporate agenda, Startup Week truly is just about the entrepreneurs.”

The bigger issue, as Bazzy sees it, is that Detroit has become a legitimate hub for startups and innovation, yet the entrepreneurial community here continues to be fairly insular with limited access for those that don’t have the right connections.

“There are still a lot of people who don’t get it in our area, and we have to change that culture,” Bazzy said.

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