Detroit’s role as a technology startup hotspot is growing.
On Thursday, three out-of-state startups said they’d open offices in downtown Detroit thanks to the Techstars Mobility business incubator. Three others entered into formal collaborations with Ford Motor Co. by moving some operations to the region to help develop driverless and connected-car systems. And one of the companies that’s working with Ford is simultaneously launching a “smart city” initiative in Detroit that will provide drivers with alerts of when emergency vehicles are near.
“We really want to establish a community of startups, corporations and mentors in downtown Detroit,” said Ted Serbinski, managing director of the business incubator sponsored by Ford and other local companies. “We operate at the intersection of two of Detroit’s biggest strengths, the automotive dominance and entrepreneurial resurgence. Startups want to be in Detroit.”
Among the companies opening new offices at Ford Field: Mapbox, a Washington, D.C.-based company that develops lane-guidance maps for carmakers; PolySync, a Portland-based company that makes autonomous-car software; and Nebraska-based Drive Spotter, which uses real-time data to help locate and manage vehicle fleets.
The announcements came at Techstars’ second annual demo day, the culmination of a three-month incubator for 12 companies from around the world. Each company received $120,000 as well as expert guidance to help build their businesses. Drive Spotter was a member of the 2016 class, while PolySync and Mapbox have been supporters and mentors of the program.
The three new companies follow Lunar and SPLT, two startups from the inaugural 2015 Techstars class that moved to Detroit from New York and now employ more than 20 workers downtown. Techstars also recruited Oblong, a startup that allows companies to teleconference all over the world, to move to the city last year.
Mapbox was founded in 2008 in the nation’s capital and has since raised $63 million and created a dual headquarters in Washington and San Francisco. The company builds and powers the maps for tens of thousands of companies, including Foursquare, Pinterest and National Geographic.
It offers a “Mapbox Drive” platform for in-car navigation. The maps are updated in real-time and meant to help direct semi-autonomous and, eventually, fully self-driving vehicles.
“Detroit is truly the innovation and mobility corridor; this is where the innovations are happening in the automotive industry,” said Jeremy Stratman, the company’s automotive division leader. “We want to be next to our customers.”
PolySync chose to open here for similar reasons.
“We think there’s not only a massive amount of talent in this area that deeply understands how vehicles are constructed, there’s also just really great and solid engineers,” said Josh Hartung, PolySync’s CEO. “You have folks who understand how to make things that are very high quality…we think that business really gets done here and will continue to get done here.”
The company was founded in 2013 and offers software platforms for autonomous cars. The company says its technology makes it easier for automakers and other developers to make autonomous algorithms and is similar to building apps. This fall, PolySync will set up at MCity in Ann Arbor for another incubator working with UM engineering students.
Each company will have about a handful of workers based in Detroit, but even if the companies don’t move downtown, Serbinski said the Techstars program is shining a spotlight on Detroit. Techstars this year received about 500 applications from 52 countries, including 19 applications from Michigan.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “It confirms the fact we can make these collaborations work.”
Serbinski plans to announce the 2017 class at the upcoming North American International Auto Show.