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Mitten State: Michigan’s World-Class Testing Facilities are Magnet for Tech Startups

By Rachelle Damico

Michigan is on the cusp of innovation for automated vehicle technologies, and startups are capitalizing on opportunity.

Testing facilities, such as University of Michigan’s Mcity, the American Center for Mobility and the recently announced GM Mobility Research Center at Kettering University, provide an opportunity to attract startups to the state.

Through a partnership between UM's Center for Entrepreneurship and Mobility Transformation Center called TechLab, UM's 32-acre test facility, Mcity, is available to startups such as Zendrive, Civil Maps and PolySync.

Through a partnership between UM’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Mobility Transformation Center called TechLab, UM’s 32-acre test facility, Mcity, is available to startups such as Zendrive, Civil Maps and PolySync.

Leading this trend is Mcity, UM’s 32-acre connected and autonomous vehicle testing facility. In February, UM’s Center for Entrepreneurship and the Mobility Transformation Center partnered on a collaboration at Mcity called TechLab, which provides transportation technology startups access to university resources.

This September, three startup companies from the West Coast joined TechLab — Civil Maps, PolySync and Zendrive.

“I think these companies are coming from the West Coast because they see a tremendous value here,” said Carrie Morton, deputy director of the Mobility Transformation Center. “Southeast Michigan and the state in general bring a lot to bear.”

Zendrive, based in San Francisco, was the first startup to join TechLab. The company uses technology aimed at improving safety for drivers by using a driver’s smartphone to measure actions such as breaking, accelerating, swerving and smartphone use. The company was established by former Google and Facebook employees, and secured $13.5 million in funding this year from venture capitalists and other firms to improve their technology and hire additional team members.

Civil Maps, based in Albany, Calif., also secured funding. The company develops 3-D maps using artificial-intelligence software to direct autonomous vehicles. In July, Civil Maps raised $6.6 million in seed funding led by five investors that include Ford Motor Co.

PolySync, based in Portland, Ore., is developing an operating system built for the high-bandwidth requirements of autonomous driving.

“These companies are finding really interesting partnerships and talent that we hope will lead them to become permanent fixtures in Southeast Michigan,” Morton said.

There has been so much interest from both startups and students that TechLab is looking to expand, Morton said, adding that UM hopes to add another three startups to the program in the near future.

“…It’s a great opportunity for the state to make sure that this technology is developed here,” Morton said.

In the coming years, the region is likely to attract other startups with the addition of the American Center for Mobility.

The 335-acre Willow Run site will become an advanced automotive testing and product development center that can test vehicles at various weather conditions, including ice and snow, at highway speeds.

“Both as an attractor and retainer of talent, I think this offers a much wider array of opportunities, particularly for our young people who are getting educated at our universities,” said Steve Arwood, CEO for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The state contributed $20 million to the Ypsilanti Township-based site, which is expected to open at the end of next year.

The American Center for Mobility at Willow Run is an advanced testing and product development center scheduled to open in 2017. It is designed to test vehicles in a variety of real-world environments.

The American Center for Mobility at Willow Run is an advanced testing and product development center scheduled to open in 2017. It is designed to test vehicles in a variety of real-world environments.

“I think this certainly is our opportunity to advance our thinking in how we situate ourselves for economic development given where this is going,” Arwood said. “We’re in a position where within two to five years we may see the rise of one or two new automakers or OEMs.”

Ann Arbor SPARK initiated the project and will play a key role in economic development tied to the Center.

“We see a great deal of potential for lots of different companies to start up and grow to scale,” said Paul Krutko, Ann Arbor SPARK’s president and CEO.

Krutko said an adjacent property on the project’s site may be used as a devoted space for early stage technology companies to collaborate with bigger players in the industry. He also said the Center has been in touch with companies from Silicon Valley that are interested in its capabilities.

“I think it will be really important not only in retaining talent, but attracting talent here, because there’s going to be great opportunities to be a part of,” Krutko said.

Glenn Stevens, executive director of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto initiative, said Michigan’s testing sites are a selling point for not just established technology companies, OEMs and suppliers, but also puts Michigan on the map among national and international companies looking to expand their prescence in the United States.

“The entire ecosystem for the development of automotive and next-generation mobility exists here in Southeast Michigan,” Stevens said.

Stevens, who sits on the American Center for Mobility’s Land Services Board, has been instrumental in helping establish the legal and financial operating parameters for the testing site.

MICHauto has also been a key voice in strengthening the state’s global leadership in mobility development for connected and autonomous vehicles through its partnership with the Michigan Mobility Initiative.

“It’s extremely critical for Michigan to use its presence in leadership and automotive as a platform for diversification into next-generation mobility because the economic opportunity for new companies, new technologies and new deployment of technologies is extremely immense,” Stevens said. “Our future depends on it.”

Rachelle Damico is a metro Detroit freelance writer.