Have an Idea to Fix Transportation in Detroit? You Could Win $250K

If there’s one thing that makes Detroiters’ blood boil, it’s when people from out of town parachute into the city full of plans on how to supposedly improve the lives of Motor City residents—without ever consulting said residents before plowing ahead.

It’s incredibly condescending, usually, and often smacks of paternalism. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about bringing new ventures to town, most Detroiters agree. Good thing Nima Adelkhani—chief innovation evangelist with Idea Market, a San Francisco-based organization that crowdsources pre-funded concepts to create “world-changing companies” and then finds entrepreneurs to bring those concepts to market—has deliberately tried to go about it the right way.

In town this week to announce the long-incubating Detroit Transportation Challenge, Adelkhani comes by his enthusiasm for Detroit honestly. A native of Germany, the very first professional football game he watched after moving to the United States as a kid was a Detroit Lions game. Those were the Barry Sanders years, and the excitement of the moment imprinted a lifelong love of the Lions upon his soul. (And make no mistake—if you’re going to hang in there with the Lions year after disappointing year, that affection definitely comes from deep inside. In fact, when Adelkhani officially announced the challenge at the Techonomy conference this week, he was wearing a Lions jersey he’s had for decades.)

Adelkhani also loves big-body American cars of the kind Detroit has perfected: Cadillacs, mostly. But perhaps most endearing is the way he fairly crackles with the enthusiasm he feels toward the promise and possibilities Detroit holds, with a refreshing lack of Silicon Valley pretension or the spirit of “Nu Colonialism” that too often colors the plans of outsiders.

So when he saw Idea Market’s lead investor, AOL founder Steve Case, speak at an event in California last year about his efforts with the Rise of the Rest tour, Adelkhani became intrigued with Detroit all over again.

“I got goosebumps,” Adelkhani said, recalling Case’s speech. “Right away, I wanted to do something.”

He began cold-emailing various Detroit movers and shakers, and he had the supreme good fortune to connect with Alisyn Malek, an investment banker with GM Ventures. Not only was Malek one of Crain’s Detroit’s “Twenty in Their 20s,” an honor given to the highest young achievers in local business, but she’s also a staunch opponent of carpet-bagging. If it wasn’t clear already, Malek further disabused him of any “Bay Area Hero Saves Detroit” fantasies.

Malek also introduced Adelkhani to an incredible number of local entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers, government officials, and tons of other people with a stake in Detroit’s startup scene. Adelkhani’s enthusiasm grew, and he took his ideas on the road to South by Southwest last spring. He invited the crowd at Idea Market’s outpost there to submit their ideas for innovative ways to improve Detroit.

Adelkhani said he got 974 submissions, with answers ranging from micro-lending and micro-manufacturing to workforce retraining and educational reforms. He decided to take an approach inspired by X Prize and launch a challenge to entrepreneurs. He flew into Detroit in May and hosted a reception with 35 local thought leaders to brainstorm the six potential Detroit challenge verticals he had pulled from the SXSW submissions.

Transportation got the highest score among the six verticals he pitched to those gathered at the reception, so Adelkhani set about crafting a challenge around how to improve transportation in Detroit. The challenge, he said, “is a call to everyone everywhere to come to Detroit and build a solution.” It can involve mass transit, but it doesn’t have to. Essentially, it just has to be a viable idea that gets people to and from work more easily and efficiently, or improves the public transit system. (To read Adelkhani’s blog post about the genesis of the challenge, click here.)

Those who want to participate in the challenge have until Dec. 15, 2015 to submit … Next Page »

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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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