Detroit Workspace Aims to Connect Mobility Startups, Auto Industry

Many tech companies are feverishly working to develop self-driving cars and other mobility-related innovations, but that’s only the first step.

Once startups have a prototype or working concept, the next step is introducing it to the region’s automotive ecosystem—a complicated web of proprietary projects, collaborations, and legacy relationships that can seem impenetrable to outsiders. A new workspace in downtown Detroit aims to facilitate relationships between startups and the auto industry, and provide tech companies with business development resources while further cementing Michigan’s role in developing automated technologies.

Last week, the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), and WeWork came together to launch PlanetM Landing Zone, a co-working space in WeWork’s Merchant Row location where startups working on connected and automated transportation technologies can access industry players and state economic developers.

“The objective is to make it easy for the world’s best mobility companies to come to Detroit and do business with the auto industry,” says Justin Robinson, the Chamber’s vice president of business attraction. The Landing Zone is the first hub of its kind, both for WeWork, which has locations in 52 cities and 16 countries, and the Chamber. “We’ve launched a lot of initiatives, but something of this nature, with a separate office space to serve as an entry point, is uncharted territory for the Chamber.”

During the first year of operation, the Landing Zone will have space for roughly 20 companies; there are four startups—SPLT, Spatial, San Francisco-based Sherpa Capital, and DriveSmart—already in residence there. The Chamber and MEDC will house staff members on site to provide “wrap-around services,” which could include workforce assistance, introductions to potential investors, invitations to curated events, and connections to global purchasers and suppliers.

Ford, the first automaker to partner in the site, has also placed staff at the Landing Zone from its City Solutions team, which was established last year to work with municipalities to propose, pilot, and develop mobility solutions tailored to specific communities.

Robinson says the idea came about after the Chamber and MEDC, while conducting separate business development efforts in the U.S. and abroad, realized early-stage tech companies had a lot of interest in Detroit but said they needed help tapping into the region’s automotive ecosystem.

“We’re looking to find companies that ideally are already venture-backed, with a leadership team in place and a proof of concept,” Robinson says. “Really, they’re at the business development stage.”

The Landing Zone will charge companies accepted into the program $100 per desk for the first six months, increasing to $200 per desk per month thereafter. At the end of the first year, organizers hope that companies will have progressed enough to need a dedicated office either inside WeWork at the standard rate, or at a space elsewhere in Southeast Michigan. WeWork is providing discounted space while the MEDC picks up 75 percent of the operational costs and the Chamber is responsible for the remaining 25 percent.

Robinson hopes that in the first year of operation, the Landing Zone can serve as the nexus of where mobility startups and the larger ecosystem can come together for “discussions and ideation.” But he stresses that the purpose of the space is not just to develop early-stage companies, but also to get industry engaged in the startup community.

“How people will move in an urban environment is changing rapidly, so we view the Landing Zone as a hub of physical activity where two worlds come together” for mutually beneficial collisions, Robinson says. “Industry folks can attend events, or actively vet companies and explore their technology, or they can co-locate staff like Ford did if they want to be an ambassador for the effort in general.”

Robinson says Techstars Mobility, an incubator for mobility startups also located in downtown Detroit, will be “one of our most important partners.” (SPLT and Spatial, two Landing Zone companies, are graduates of the Techstars program.) Ted Serbinski, the Techstars Mobility director, plans to announce specifics at that program’s demo day event on Oct. 18.

Mobility startups interested in participating in the Landing Zone should apply here; industry representatives that would like to partner with the program can apply here.

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