Zendrive is First Participant in U-M’s New TechLab Program at MCity

The University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Mobility Transformation Center are partnering on a new collaboration at MCity called TechLab, designed to help get connected and driverless car technologies to market faster.

Meant to unite the efforts of university researchers, student innovators, and advanced transportation startups, TechLab is part startup incubator and part interactive learning project, enabling students to see how a lab discovery becomes a company and giving them an inside look at how product development happens in the real world. Startups, in turn, can leverage the energy and creativity of U-M students as they work to build their companies and access the world-class test track at MCity to test their innovations.

The first company to work in TechLab’s pilot program is Zendrive, a Bay Area startup that recently announced $13.5 million in Series A funding from a range of investors, including Detroit’s Fontinalis Partners, Sherpa Capital, and BMW i Ventures. Zendrive’s technology taps mobile sensors to measure driver safety through actions like acceleration, braking, swerving, and phone use, among many others. The company uses artificial intelligence algorithms and hundreds of billions of data points to analyze that sensor data and return actionable insights that can be used to coach drivers and manage fleets.

Johnathan Matus, CEO of Zendrive, describes his company’s offerings as “safety-as-a-service” and said its overarching goal is to offer a new, evolved set of tools for safety in the connected and autonomous vehicle space, thereby making roads safe enough to usher in a new era of transportation.

“Autonomous vehicles and connected cars are two big trends that depend on safety,” Matus said. “None will happen without improved safety.”

Zendrive found its way to MCity after one of its investors, a patent attorney, was approached by U-M to help find “leading-edge” companies to participate in TechLab. After visiting campus and sending a team of engineers to check things out, Matus said Zendrive agreed the program was worth its time. What especially appeals to the company is what MCity offers: the world’s first and only replica city made specifically for testing autonomous and connected vehicle technologies—a research center that is independent but also offers access to industry partners such as Ford, GM, and State Farm.

“We’re partnering with an academic institution as well as people working on the automotive operations side,” Matus said. “We’re making our core technology more robust, and we’re using smartphones to understand driver behavior. Zendrive wanted to get involved with TechLab to make the transition to connected cars happen sooner, and the bottleneck right now is around safety.”

The two-year-old Zendrive might be in a better position to solve some of the safety challenges associated with driverless cars than many startups. The company was founded by former employees of Facebook and Google, where they worked to launch the Android platform and Facebook Mobile. Because of that background, Matus said, Zendrive employees understand how to scale a platform from zero to millions of users. The company also brought in hackers and professors to beef up its machine learning capabilities.

“The biggest challenges to getting this stuff to market isn’t the technology itself, but the regulatory and safety concerns,” he said. “Building a car that stays in its lane is not that complex, but doing it safely is another thing.”

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