Free Workshops, Tools, & Advice? Centrepolis Aids Hardware Startups

Although Michigan is home to 2,500 small manufacturers and is the center of the domestic auto industry, it didn’t have a hardware technology incubator until Lawrence Technological University launched one about a year ago.

The Centrepolis Accelerator’s mission is to help grow the state’s advanced manufacturing and hardware ecosystem by providing funding, product- and business-development resources, and mentorship to entrepreneurs working in the sector. Last month, Centrepolis co-sponsored a summit and pitch competition with PlanetM as part of Startup Week Detroit, highlighting Michigan as a hub for lean manufacturing and hardware development.

“It used to be that investors wouldn’t touch hardware startups,” says Dan Radomski, director of the Centrepolis Accelerator. That changed with the dawn of the Internet of Things and a plethora of connected devices, as well as the rise of the mobility industry. During the first half of 2018, data from Crunchbase and Bolt indicated that hardware startups scored investment capital across 243 funding rounds nationwide, Radomski notes—up significantly from the first half of 2012, when there were only 17 funding rounds that involved hardware companies.

“We want to help entrepreneurs get their ideas to market and help them build their companies in Michigan,” Radomski continues. “You can’t pick a better place to prototype and engineer hardware. We can bring the state’s product development and design assets to bear with hardware innovators.”

Centrepolis’s main program is called Scale Up for Success, which helps companies find customers, holds workshops on business processes and planning, connects startups to corporations seeking new innovations or college students in search of internships, and offers a collaborative workspace with a prototyping lab. Scale Up for Success has a separate version for cleantech companies developing hardware products or processes that align with state and federal efforts to increase renewable energy and reduce waste.

“We’re looking for technology that applies to LTU’s strengths, or to help established companies [by connecting them to] Lawrence Tech students or faculty—if we do proof-of-concept work for clients, we will sometimes bring them into the accelerator,” Radomski explains. “It advances both the companies and student learning.”

Radomski says there are up to a dozen companies in the accelerator at any given time, and they are not required to pay anything to participate. Centrepolis has a small pool of money it can spend to help accelerator companies with prototyping or with launching crowdfunding campaigns, which have become a popular way to support small hardware projects. Occasionally, Centrepolis will also loan money to accelerator companies.

More than 400 people from all over the world attended Centrepolis’s hardware summit at Startup Week Detroit, and Radomski says the accelerator helped facilitate more than 200 “curated” one-on-one meetings between hardware companies and potential customers or investors. “It went way better than we expected, so we’ll do this on an annual basis,” he adds.

The hardware summit also included a pitch contest. Eight companies were selected to compete from more than 40 applicants, and two startups won $10,000 each: MaxFit Pro, a Detroit-based company selling connected fitness products, won for best Michigan hardware company, and Kuhmute, a Flint-based vehicle-to-grid and ridesharing service, won for best mobility hardware company.

On Oct. 4, Centrepolis will celebrate the grand opening of a new co-working and accelerator space on LTU’s campus, which will have cutting-edge tools like collaborative robots, virtual reality design and simulation, 3D printers, and more. Radomski says the accelerator is also reaching out to philanthropical organizations for more funding in order to increase capacity. “We have more than 100 companies that need advice and tactical help,” he says.

In addition to Lawrence Tech, Centrepolis is supported by the state’s economic development office, and the city of Southfield, where it is located.

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