Techstars Mobility Event: Detroit’s Momentum Clear as Startups Shine

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autonomous vehicles could go for repairs and maintenance while passengers are at work or out shopping for the afternoon.

“In the era of self-driving cars, there will still be peaks and valleys,” he pointed out. “During the valley times, the cars will have to go somewhere. Most likely, they will use existing infrastructure, perhaps repurposed for autonomous vehicles. SpotHero has already built a network of connected garages—we have that platform, so we’re ready when the industry is.”

 

After Huge Series C, Mapbox Growing in Detroit

San Francisco’s Mapbox, which just closed on a $164 million Series C round earlier this month, is also growing in Detroit. The company, which provides customers like Snapchat, CNN, and the Weather Channel with continually updating maps, real-time traffic, and navigation, has had an office in the Techstars Mobility space since 2016, but will soon operate out of WeWork downtown.

CEO Eric Gunderson said the company located here to be closer to the auto industry and its decision-makers, pointing out that the collaborative process seems to move faster when you can get people together in the same room.  “We’re on track to have 10 people working in the area, and are quickly going to need to find a long-term home,” he added.

 

Panel Talks Detroit’s Promise and Provincialism

The Foundry Group’s Mendelson, sporting a t-shirt bearing the Motown logo, led a panel discussion with Gunderson, Sherpa Capital’s Liz Keen, public relations maven Howie Barokas, PolySync’s Josh Hartung, SpotHero’s Mosbacher, and Mighty AI’s Daryn Nakhuda. Each company is headquartered elsewhere, but has a Southeast Michigan office.

Mendelson asked the group why they decided to open a local office, and most answered with some variation of “in order to be close to auto industry customers.” Mendelson pointed out that the popular narrative 10 years ago involved luring expats back to Michigan. “Now,” he said, “I’m the only one on this panel originally from Detroit,” which he took as a sign of progress.

“Detroit has a public relations problem,” Barokas said. “Five years ago, the media didn’t want to talk about Detroit unless it was post-apocalyptic. Things have changed a lot since then and now, it’s a renaissance story, which is not sustainable. The fact that Detroit doesn’t suck anymore—we need to move beyond that. Detroit vs. Everybody was a great rallying cry, but we need to be more inclusive.”

Keen agreed with Barokas, but felt it was less an issue of how Detroit is perceived in Silicon Valley—what’s missing is “sheer awareness” of Detroit’s tech boom, she said. Sherpa is currently working with Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials to increase the communication between Michigan and the Bay Area, she added.

Inclusivity is something the region still struggles with, something those on the panel called out. Perhaps it’s the legacy of being a “company town” for so many decades, but the local startup culture is still too hung up on hierarchies and information-parceling, and Mendelson seems to have noticed.

In Boulder, CO, where Mendelson is based, everyone is invited to everything, he said. He doesn’t see that here, where there are too many people holding siloed meetings, making it a lot harder for the startup ecosystem to be fully functional.

“Detroit is a really cliquey town, which is odd to me,” he said. “I feel it’s still very provincial. Collaboration and communication are key.”

Maybe the #StartupDetroit initiative, announced by Serbinski at the demo day, will help with that. Billed as an “open source approach” to building the local startup ecosystem, … Next Page »

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