Catching Up with 2016 Techstars Mobility Class: What Did They Learn?

Detroit’s Techstars Mobility startup accelerator has wrapped another summer of innovating and iterating, and the 12 participating companies are now headed out into the marketplace to hustle.

I caught up with managing director Ted Serbinski and the rest of the Techstars crew earlier this month—the day after they pitched investors and sang the praises of the Motor City, the program, and the opportunities it provides—to find out how the summer went and what’s next.

Serbinski said overall, this year’s class was further along, with bigger teams and more market traction, than last year’s. He also saw a heavier focus on machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other technologies related to the development of autonomous vehicles.

The 2016 Techstars Mobility class consisted of 12 companies plucked from nearly 500 applicants from all over the world. They spent three months developing transportation solutions aligned with Ford Smart Mobility, the automaker’s plan to implement autonomous and mobility technologies. Ford is the program’s primary corporate partner; other industry sponsors include Magna International, Verizon, Honda, McDonald’s, and Michelin.

A handful of the companies will stick around to oversee work on local pilot projects, and at least five of the 12 companies will close funding rounds with investors this fall, Serbinski said. Last year, only one Techstars Mobility startup was able to close investments that quickly.

“We’ve been on a mission to connect the auto industry to startups, and it seems like it’s working well,” Serbinski said.

I sat in on Serbinski’s last meeting with the 2016 cohort, which was held the day after the demo day with investors. “Your most important job is, don’t [screw] it up,” he said to the assembled entrepreneurs. “The worst thing is if you go home, you’re drifting, and then the holidays start. Set specific goals.”

Serbinski told the crew he expected to see all of them back in Detroit in January for the North American International Auto Show, where mobility will be the theme of a brand-new, dedicated exposition called AutoMobili-D, which will showcase the rapidly evolving global automotive landscape and feature more than 100 companies, including automakers, suppliers, and tech startups.

“All the automotive decision-makers will be there,” he said. “It’ll be the biggest keynote speech they’ve had in the history of the auto show, by far.” Although Serbinski said he wasn’t able to reveal who the keynote speaker will be, he hinted that it was a world-famous innovator along the lines of Steve Jobs. (Elon Musk was a popular guess among the Techstars crew.)

“Momentum is everything,” he continued. “We don’t have a ton of mass, but we have velocity. Don’t slow down; keep sending out regular investor and product updates.” The startups from the 2016 class are allowed to work for free out of the Techstars Mobility headquarters at Ford Field until next June.

Among the companies staying in Detroit, at least temporarily, is GoKid. Founder Stefanie Lemcke raved about her experience as part of the 2016 class.

“What we achieved in three months would have taken a year,” Lemcke said. “The way they brought us to the next level was incredible. With the mentor network, they can make things happen so fast.”

The beta version of the GoKid app is now live for iOS, and it allows parents to manage carpooling schedules with other families, complete with automated reminders. GoKid is currently being tested at eight Detroit schools.

“We’re part of the sharing economy, solving school transportation for parents who are strapped for time,” Lemcke said. “Parents lose hours of productivity transporting kids, and schools have a hard time attracting students if there’s a lack of public or bus transportation available.”

When I talked to Lemcke at the beginning of the summer, she expressed reservations … 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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