By Melanie Barnett
When it comes to Michigan’s growing mobility startup ecosystem, outsiders have doubts about the state’s potential for success, and its ability to compete with contenders like Silicon Valley, Seattle, or Pittsburgh. Despite this, many mobility startups have made the move to Detroit due to its resources, affordability, and community of likeminded mobility innovators.
Detroiter hosted a discussion with three Detroit-based mobility experts at the PlanetM Landing Zone, Detroit’s premier mobility startup hub. At the table are Kevin Mull, head of Connected Mobility Services at Robert Bosch GmbH; Jessica Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Mobility Institute; and Ashok Sivanand, CEO of Integral.
Glenn Stevens Jr., executive director of MICHauto, and vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives at the Detroit Regional Chamber, moderated the hour-long conversation tackling myths around the startup and mobility space in Detroit, and considering how Michigan’s assets position the state as a global destination for mobility tech companies.
GS: What’s the biggest myth to you about Detroit versus other places or what’s going on here?
JR: I think a big myth here is that everything that we’re doing is still automotive and has to be connected to automotive to be mobility. Now, that’s not to say that there’s not a lot of interesting things happening in that space, but I think Michigan from the outside still looks like the place where you manufacture vehicles, and that’s all that happens here. And what I’m excited about and what we’re working on is creating the talent that both designs and envisions the future of movement. So vehicles on new ground, yes, but everything else as well.
AS: Yeah, I’d echo that. I think when I speak to folks from outside of the region and we talk about how we’re working in the auto transportation space, they automatically jump to, so you’re working on the vehicle dash ‘cause that’s the only software that comes to mind about the auto industry. But a tad to Jessica’s point in thinking about the future of shared mobility, there’s a lot of moving people from point A to point B. I think there’s also a lot of innovation happening in the automotive ecosystem. We got to work with a team at Bosch that helps with diagnosing and servicing your vehicles in a more efficient way and how software is playing a huge part in that.
KM: Yeah, I completely agree with everything said so far, but I also think another [myth] is that the quality of the startups here in Detroit and Michigan and the region is not in the caliber of what you’d find in the Valley or Pittsburgh or somewhere like that. I think that our experience, particularly sitting here in the PlanetM Landing Zone that created these startup collisions with big companies like Bosch, who I work for, that you wouldn’t find that quality here is I think is something that I’ve heard as I’ve gone around to other parts because we’re active all over the world. Detroit easily holds its own with the other parts of the world.
GS: Let’s talk about how you all got here. I don’t think anyone’s originally from here, correct? Where did you come from? How did you get here?
KM: I’m very proud to say that I’m originally from Pittsburgh, and I went to the University of Pittsburgh, got an electrical engineering degree. At that time the business climate in Pittsburgh was pretty tough just coming out of the collapse of the steel industry. I worked in the steel industry in Pittsburgh. I had a friend that was working here in metro Detroit and he said, come on for the summer, get a little experience working for this company. That was doing technical publications in the auto industry. I came out expecting to be here for three months and I never left. So, 25 plus years in metro Detroit and almost four years in living in the city.
GS: Ashok, you’re not from Detroit. You’ve got quite a background.
AS: I grew up in the Middle East and my parents moved around a little bit… I moved to Toronto after school, worked for a bunch of startups there. One of the companies I worked for got acquired by a Silicon Valley company called Pivotal Labs. And when they opened up an office in Detroit, I moved out here to open that office and it was supposed to be a six month, get in, get out kind of thing. I was in Royal Oak at first. By the time I moved in here, it was already really comfortable despite what everyone said. Moved here two years ago, started a company, now I own a house.
JR: We have something common, which is all three of us came to Detroit thinking we’d only be for a minute and we all ended up staying and building things, which is actually cool. I first came to Detroit as part of Zipcar, which at the time was one of the first mobility service-based companies globally. I put Detroit on the list of cities that the company should look at expanding into in part because we needed to continue to grow. I came to briefly run the market and loved the business community here so much that I ended up pitching that I could move to the city as well. I also live in the city of Detroit itself.
GS: We’re in a new evolution that has connected, automated, shared, and electrified technology. Your thoughts on the scene here?
AS: The first thing that I think I’d want all the [readers] to think about is this definition of a startup. It’s often tied to venture capital and also tied to not being profitable. This wave has come around where those checks and balances are coming to the foray, right? Whereas if you compare it to entrepreneurs here, there has been a history of strong, small to medium businesses growing and scaling to big businesses here. The thing that the region could probably mature into is seeing that wave again.
GS: So, Bosch, you were one of the early ones to literally immerse yourself in this and have stayed immersed in it.
KM: I have been fortunate to get involved in some of our activities with either investing or acquiring startups. And you know, I’ve learned how hard that is from the corporate side as well. That’s why we’re here is to get that level of engagement and to be present in this ecosystem.
AS: Not to make it an us versus them, but it’s something that I’ve noticed that’s different between Detroit and even the suburbs around here. The businesses around here, the folks who work for the city around here, I find it’s just such an affable city compared to even the customers that we try to approach or the folks that we try to bring into our community for different things that are kind of tucked away in the different suburbs here tend to kind of have that policy. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed that or if that’s something just coincidental.
KM: I’ve noticed it from a work perspective and from a personal perspective, it’s much different than even where I was living in the suburbs compared to living downtown. And people just have a different approach. It feels like here’s this cause that everybody is rallying around which is mobility in the city or championed by the city. That’s probably different than maybe [Silicon] Valley for example, where it’s not really about the Valley itself and the success of the Valley. It’s more about the success of the individual companies. Here, it’s more the success of the region, and that high tide raises all boats here.
JR: We’re seeing the next iteration of that potentially now with plug and play. I’m opening their program here at FCA, intentionally engaging the minority business supplier community here. And I think that’s going to open a whole new wave of connections both for the suppliers that are here but also the startups that will engage in the community to continue to deepen those roots and take advantage of those connections to build things that are stronger and more lasting.
GS: I think you guys bring up an interesting theme. This is a very interesting city because it doesn’t have mass transit like a lot of cities around the world do. There aren’t going to be any tunnels dug anytime soon. So, we have to look for other solutions. I’d love to hear what your take on this. This is a large city that connects into suburbs where people do come and go, which has an international border where people are crossing and working every day. It seems like this is an ideal or unique place to test and develop. What are your thoughts on that?
JR: Recently, the Detroit Mobility Lab came out in support of giving voters here a chance to invest in regional transit. We think transit is important for the region to help people to be able to get around. I agree that we need other creative solutions as well. We’re seeing the city and public sector work very creatively. You need a backbone and investing in infrastructure is really important there.
AS: Coming from the perspective of talent, I’d say in terms of our business, being able to find talent has really been the constraint for our growth. We’ve [gotten to] where we’re oversubscribed as far as our customers go. Finding the kind of talent and organizing them to do the quality of work that we do has been hard for this market. There are a few reasons for that. I think Quicken Loans is doing it already in terms of opening a development office in Ontario. Similar to New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles getting really expensive here, Toronto is not a very accessible city anymore. And there are folks starting to think about other places to go and it’s definitely a big opportunity for Detroit and Windsor to collaborate.
I do have a question about something that you mentioned, Jessica. It’s something you’ve always wondered about and it’s something that extends in Toronto as well. Why is riding the bus not great?
JR: There’s been lots of research on this. There’s people like me, I’m considered what’s called the choice rider. I’m able to have a car if I want because of my economic status. Generally speaking, in most communities in the U.S., definitely in Detroit, as soon as you have enough money to buy a car, you do because it’s a status symbol. In communities of color, there’s other stigma around riding a bus and it goes back to the history of bus riding in America. And that’s also confusing. Like if you haven’t been on a bus a while, do you pay with cash? Do you use your app? Which door do you go in? How do you get the guy to stop when it’s your stop? It’s uncomfortable. We don’t do it in America.
AS: I’m proud to say that we did recently. We decided that we’re going to, as a company, go to the Charles H. Wright museum. I kind of pulled a CEO rank move where I said, we’re all taking the bus. It was just a really fun experience. Wow, this is really clean. Wow, the bus driver is really nice and really helpful. Folks have come back and said, hey, it’s really more convenient for me to just take the bus. If you have the opportunity to pull rank like I did for like a really short trip like that, you can introduce folks to the bus and then you’re likely going to bust a myth.
GS: You probably saw recently that Gov. Whitmer made a pretty significant announcement. You guys were talking about leadership and [that] it starts at the top. They just made a big commitment to not only the auto industry today, but where it’s going. What are your thoughts on that?
JR: With this new office of mobility at the state level, what I’m most excited about is two things. The first is the focus at the state level, linking the industry and what it means to the economy with the talent story. The Second is with the focus on the Council of Future Mobility. It’s in our DNA that [the] industry should have a collective voice in terms of needs. I’m not just talking about lobbying for legislative change. I’m talking about signaling where the industry’s going because the governor does not, or anyone in her cabinet, they do not have the luxury of getting out and meeting with the technology leaders who are driving their businesses forward.
AS: I think folks from [MICHauto’s] office as well as from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Have done a great job of demystifying how government can be supportive for entrepreneurship and economic development, even for the small players like us. I’m hoping that blueprint can be scaled up now.
KM: I think it’s going to be a great addition to the good work that’s already being done by [MICHauto] and others around. [Detroit] recently did the same thing with Mark de la Vergne’s position. If the state is as successful as what Mark has done for the city, then I think we’re really going to notice the difference.
Melanie Barnett is the editor of Detroiter magazine. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.