Ridesharing Startup SPLT Wins Accelerate Michigan’s $500K Prize

SPLT, the Detroit-based enterprise carpooling service and graduate of the Techstars Mobility program, walked away with the $500,000 grand prize at this year’s Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, the state’s largest annual startup event, held last week in Detroit.

In an e-mail to supporters, SPLT CEO Anya Babbitt described the company’s reaction to the win: “Thursday night was a dream for us at SPLT,” she wrote. “If you were there, you could see that [co-founder and CTO Yale Zhang] and I were in complete shock. It didn’t occur to us that we had won the grand prize! We thought we were the runners up so you can imagine the additional excitement. … When we decided to stay in Michigan last fall, we never imagined where we would end up. The word Michigan to us means family and the word Detroit, community.”

The Accelerate Michigan win caps a season of accolades for the company. SPLT was recently recognized by Staples and Entrepreneur magazine as a startup to watch, and last month, Babbitt was named one of Crain’s 40 under 40 in Detroit.

Accelerate Michigan awarded a total of $845,000 in cash prizes, including investment capital from Ann Arbor SPARK, Invest Michigan, and Invest Detroit, and $247,500 in legal, public relations, and other in-kind services. Serving on the judging panel this year was a mix of investors and entrepreneurs: Dennis Archer Jr., Beth Ardisana, Dhani Jones, Fred Schmidt, and Mina Sooch chose this year’s winners.

Autobooks, the Troy-based integrated accounting and payment software startup, won $100,000 and first-runner-up honors. Second runner up JOOL Health, the Ann Arbor maker of a well-being app, won $50,000. ProNav, the U.P. company helping those who fish navigate the waters via mobile app, won $25,000 and was third runner up.

The winners of the $25,000 “highlight” awards were recovery support app Workit Health (people’s choice); COSIGN (accelerator), an app that lets users recommend and buy their favorite products; Movellus Circuits (university research), the University of Michigan spinout startup focused on architecture software for “system on a chip” applications; Lunar Labs (VC-backed), a Techstars Mobility alum developing a pay-as-you-go smartphone platform; Sentinl (safety innovation), the maker of a biometric trigger lock for guns; and Voyhoy, the Techstars Mobility alum that lets South American travelers buy train, bus, and plane tickets online.

Twenty-seven student-led startups also competed at Accelerate Michigan in a track sponsored by Spartan Innovations. The winners were Orindi Ventures ($10,000), which makes outerwear accessories for the “extreme adventurer”; StirItUp ($5,000); Confluent Care ($3,000), an app that allows community care workers to connect with clients and employers; and Kulisha ($2,000), a startup making animal feed with an insect protein base.

This year, the Michigan Venture Capital Association (MVCA) held its annual awards gala the night before Accelerate Michigan to better attract the state’s venture capitalists to the event. Invest Detroit’s Martin Dober said that strategy paid off.

“We sold over 600 tickets to Accelerate Michigan, which was way beyond our expectations,” he said. “We were very happy about the new partnership with MVCA, and we received lots of positive feedback about the approach this year to consolidate Accelerate Michigan into a one-day event, remove the keynote speaker and panel discussions, and remove the sector award biases for companies advancing through the competition. I’m sure these are things that we will continue next year.”

Among those honored by the MVCA were Millendo Therapeutics, which raised a $62 million Series B round; Fontinalis Partners, a Detroit VC firm focused on mobility technologies; RetroSense Therapeutics, which was acquired by Allergan earlier this year for $60 million; and U-M professor David Brophy, an eminence grise of Ann Arbor’s startup scene.

Dober said that between cash and in-kind services offered by sponsors, Accelerate Michigan awarded a record $1.1 million to this year’s winners. Dober said Invest Detroit, which managed this year’s competition, will apply what it learned to next year’s edition.

“There are definitely still some areas to improve upon, and we have already started working on changes for next year,” he said. “Those include things like getting to quicker decisions on the final awards, and tightening things up during the award presentations. We’ve already cut the event’s overall duration in half—now we have to work on cutting out a couple of additional hours to get people out at a reasonable time.”

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