DETROIT—As Sunjay Dodani prepared to decamp from Silicon Valley for three months and place his startup into a business incubator in Detroit, his team of advisers urged him to reconsider.
They thought his fledgling company, which makes sensors that gather detailed information on tire health, would be better served maturing in a Bay Area culture tailor-made for small startups.
"But there was something in my gut," said Dodani, CEO of IntelliTire. "It's a risk leaving the Silicon Valley innovation bubble for the Midwest, but this is a relationship industry, and mobility in its own way is very much about building relationships."
Mobility encompasses much more than the auto industry, but Dodani said the crossroads of those relationships still run through Detroit. So IntelliTire forged ahead with its participation in the Techstars Mobility Accelerator here, along with 10 other startups making up the organization's fourth class of nascent businesses.
Founders of the companies spent the past three months polishing business plans and establishing partnerships with industry heavyweights such as Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and Bosch while working in the city. Last week, they graduated from the business incubator, pitching their businesses to a crowd of about 1,000 industry professionals during an event at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
"I skip the traditional auto shows now in place of this event," said Reilly Brennan, general partner at Trucks Venture Capital in San Francisco. "The value for me as an investor isn't just the companies on stage but the ecosystem around entrepreneurship, which includes other VCs, prospective founders and also a handful of big OEM customers."
Variety of businesses
While no one is mistaking the Motor City for Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv, the 11 companies are contributing to an emerging startup culture in Detroit that's drawing notice beyond its borders. From tires to travel, this year's class spans the transportation spectrum, with some businesses anchored by the latest in artificial intelligence and some that are ingeniously simple.
IntelliTire built sensors that provide data on tire health going beyond tread and tire pressure, including counting the number of rotations and measuring how individual potholes and rough roads affect the life span of a tire. With use primed to rise in an era of automated vehicle fleets — not to mention the current army of e-bikes and scooters — tires will be churned through faster, and fleet managers may desire detailed information on their status.
"The tire is the secret sauce," said Dodani, who signed a partnership agreement with Goodyear during his time at Techstars. "It is the only thing that touches the ground. It's the only thing that translates all that performance, innovation and technology from the car to the road. It will tell you everything you need to know if it's connected."
IntelliTire wasn't the only Techstars participant wringing innovation from where the rubber meets the road. Zohr, of Kansas City, Mo., is transforming Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans into mobile tire shops, banking on a basic premise that motorists don't want to sit around waiting for mechanics to fix a flat or rotate their tires.
Minds on mobility
Bike safety was another key focus, with two companies seeking to make cycling less dangerous. One, LaneSpotter, of Pittsburgh, is building essentially a Waze app for cyclists — offering crowdsourced information about streets such as which ones have bike lanes and where there are potholes or other obstacles.
At first glance, there's not much that connects bicyclists to the auto industry and such an app could pretty much be built anywhere. But LaneSpotter founder Lynsie Campbell said she found value in spending three months in Detroit.
"While this city is very motor-centric, everyone is thinking more about mobility," she said. "The conversations I've had with Ford, Bosch and Honda and the other corporate partners of the program, it was eye-opening to see how much they're thinking about mobility overall and transitioning from automotive companies to mobility companies."
Although she's returning to Pittsburgh, Campbell says she'll likely visit Detroit each month to maintain the relationships she built via Techstars. That's one small way the accelerator hopes to provide some economic tailwinds to the region.
None of the companies in this year's class originated in Detroit, but several now plan to open offices here. Sam Zheng, founder of DeepHow, which makes how-to videos for skilled-trades workers and enhances their training, said he plans to move his company here from New York City.
In that way, the program helps import talent and entrepreneurs to Southeast Michigan. Of the 44 startups to go through Techstars, only two have been local and half a dozen have moved here. Managing Director Ted Serbinski said that's good for the economy overall and traditional auto makers in particular.