Techstars Mobility Lures New Companies, Documentary Crew to Detroit

The Techstars Mobility accelerator program’s first cohort graduated earlier this month, and the demo day event held to showcase technologies the startups are working on also contained a few surprise announcements, including company updates and a new documentary in the works about the rise of Detroit’s entrepreneurial culture.

Ted Serbinski, who manages the Techstars Mobility program, says the accelerator’s inaugural session exceeded all of his expectations.

“To my knowledge, it’s the only accelerator in the United States focused on next-generation mobility solutions,” he says. “We had applications from 42 countries on six continents, which blew us away. There’s definitely a big need for these kinds of technologies.”

Two companies in the 2015 class, SPLT and My Dealer Service, have decided to permanently relocate to Detroit—SPLT from New York City and My Dealer Service from Denver, CO. Two other Techstars Mobility companies, CDL Warrior and Classics & Exotics, are planning to open offices in Detroit.

“This was all brought together by operating at the intersection of the automotive dominance and entrepreneurial resurgence of Detroit,” Serbinski says. “I’m very excited about how we’ll continue to expand and grow this program over the next few years.”

Serbinski says support for the 2015 cohort will be ongoing, and the companies will have access to the Techstars Mobility office at Ford Field until next year. The 2016 program will run during the summer months, with applications accepted starting in January.

“We’re having a Techstars Mobility Day at the Consumer Electronics Show, so we’ll open up for applications then,” Serbinski adds.

At the Techstars Mobility demo day event, Serbinski announced he will occupy some of his time until January serving as the executive producer of Restarting the Motor City, a documentary exploring the cultural, economic, and social shifts happening in Detroit as a result of the recent influx of entrepreneurs.

Filmmakers Tom and Melissa Dowler, of Boston, MA-based Long Haul Films, plan to shoot the documentary using a local crew starting this fall. A Kickstarter campaign to raise $15,000 toward the film has already exceeded its goal, and there’s still another two weeks to go.

Serbinski says that initially, the Dowlers were going to shoot some video around the Techstars Mobility program, but as they began to talk to people in Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, a bigger story emerged.

“We didn’t have a personal connection to Detroit, but we were fascinated by what we were seeing and hearing in news reports,” Melissa Dowler says. “We work with tech companies and innovators, which got us interested in how entrepreneurial thinking could impact cities. Detroit has an interesting story that hasn’t been reported on accurately [by national media outlets]. Every other major American city is experiencing similar challenges, so the way Detroit moves forward could be inspiring to other cities.”

Dowler says the point of the film isn’t to focus on what went wrong in Detroit, but how it’s responding to revitalization efforts. “We want to identify a select group of companies and individuals that represent different backgrounds and technologies,” she adds. “We also want to potentially explore the challenges and opportunities for startups relocating to Detroit.”

The Kickstarter campaign is only the beginning of the film’s fundraising, Dowler says. The goal of the production is to follow the stories of the chosen entrepreneurs over the course of about nine months. The Dowlers hope to release the film in early 2017.

“Every great story in Detroit leads to another great story,” Dowler says. “There are so many people doing interesting things. The biggest challenge will be figuring out who to profile, but we’re making sure we go far and wide to find them.”

A criticism often lobbed at visiting film crews—that they tend to profile the same entrepreneurs, almost none of them non-white or longtime residents of Detroit—is something Dowler says they’re actively trying to avoid with their film.

“As soon as a city begins to innovate and bring in new businesses, friction occurs,” Dowler says. “How does a city engage its citizenry and give all constituents a voice and a chance to reap the rewards? We’re incredibly interested in looking past downtown, at the role the neighborhoods will play. Because Detroit has encountered such big challenges, there’s an opportunity to question everything and take risks to try something new—and these are entrepreneurial principles.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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