Catching Up with 2016 Techstars Mobility Class: What Did They Learn?

Detroit’s Techstars Mobility startup accelerator has wrapped another summer of innovating and iterating, and the 12 participating companies are now headed out into the marketplace to hustle.

I caught up with managing director Ted Serbinski and the rest of the Techstars crew earlier this month—the day after they pitched investors and sang the praises of the Motor City, the program, and the opportunities it provides—to find out how the summer went and what’s next.

Serbinski said overall, this year’s class was further along, with bigger teams and more market traction, than last year’s. He also saw a heavier focus on machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other technologies related to the development of autonomous vehicles.

The 2016 Techstars Mobility class consisted of 12 companies plucked from nearly 500 applicants from all over the world. They spent three months developing transportation solutions aligned with Ford Smart Mobility, the automaker’s plan to implement autonomous and mobility technologies. Ford is the program’s primary corporate partner; other industry sponsors include Magna International, Verizon, Honda, McDonald’s, and Michelin.

A handful of the companies will stick around to oversee work on local pilot projects, and at least five of the 12 companies will close funding rounds with investors this fall, Serbinski said. Last year, only one Techstars Mobility startup was able to close investments that quickly.

“We’ve been on a mission to connect the auto industry to startups, and it seems like it’s working well,” Serbinski said.

I sat in on Serbinski’s last meeting with the 2016 cohort, which was held the day after the demo day with investors. “Your most important job is, don’t [screw] it up,” he said to the assembled entrepreneurs. “The worst thing is if you go home, you’re drifting, and then the holidays start. Set specific goals.”

Serbinski told the crew he expected to see all of them back in Detroit in January for the North American International Auto Show, where mobility will be the theme of a brand-new, dedicated exposition called AutoMobili-D, which will showcase the rapidly evolving global automotive landscape and feature more than 100 companies, including automakers, suppliers, and tech startups.

“All the automotive decision-makers will be there,” he said. “It’ll be the biggest keynote speech they’ve had in the history of the auto show, by far.” Although Serbinski said he wasn’t able to reveal who the keynote speaker will be, he hinted that it was a world-famous innovator along the lines of Steve Jobs. (Elon Musk was a popular guess among the Techstars crew.)

“Momentum is everything,” he continued. “We don’t have a ton of mass, but we have velocity. Don’t slow down; keep sending out regular investor and product updates.” The startups from the 2016 class are allowed to work for free out of the Techstars Mobility headquarters at Ford Field until next June.

Among the companies staying in Detroit, at least temporarily, is GoKid. Founder Stefanie Lemcke raved about her experience as part of the 2016 class.

“What we achieved in three months would have taken a year,” Lemcke said. “The way they brought us to the next level was incredible. With the mentor network, they can make things happen so fast.”

The beta version of the GoKid app is now live for iOS, and it allows parents to manage carpooling schedules with other families, complete with automated reminders. GoKid is currently being tested at eight Detroit schools.

“We’re part of the sharing economy, solving school transportation for parents who are strapped for time,” Lemcke said. “Parents lose hours of productivity transporting kids, and schools have a hard time attracting students if there’s a lack of public or bus transportation available.”

When I talked to Lemcke at the beginning of the summer, she expressed reservations about Detroit. A summer spent in the Motor City has apparently changed her mind. “I loved it here,” she said. “As a German, I saw Berlin after the war and the decline was similar, so I can relate to what the city has gone through. I also see the potential here. To my surprise, the city has really grown on me.”

That seemed to be a common sentiment, judging by the number of Techstars Mobility companies choosing to remain engaged with Detroit. Here’s a little more detail about each company and what it’s working on:

Acerta makes enterprise software that uses machine learning to detect anomalies and predict failures in real time for vehicles coming off the assembly line.

Algocian develops edge-computing software that uses deep learning to make cameras smart.

Braiq personalizes the ride experience in autonomous vehicles by teaching artificial intelligence how to better read human emotions.

Cargo is the in-car marketplace for the ride-sharing economy. Drivers can earn more money and improve rider experience by providing essential goods on-the-go.

Donut Media is the media company for the next generation of automotive enthusiasts.

Drive Spotter makes machine learning software that trains human drivers and autonomous vehicles for enterprise fleets. The Omaha, NE-based company plans to open an office in Detroit.

HAAS Alert is mobile vehicle-to-vehicle software that delivers preemptive notifications to motorists, informing them of issues in the road ahead. The company is working on a smart city pilot with the city of Detroit, where it will provide its technology to first responders.

Hero is a mobile app that helps prevent drunk driving by incentivizing bar customers to get home safely.

Rally connects groups, event-goers, and commuters for crowd-powered transportation. The company is working with the Detroit Pistons and McDonald’s on a pilot project to make it easier for people to get to basketball games.

Spatial is a location API (application programming interface) that uses artificial intelligence to answer questions only a local would know.

Voyhoy is a multi-modal booking platform that helps people save time and money traveling long distances across bus, plane, train, ferry, and rideshare in Latin America. The company said its site has had 5 million users since it launched in beta last year.

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