Ford aims to turn Detroit into auto industry’s Silicon Valley
Bill Ford: “Silicon Valley has a culture of capital formation and risk taking. We don’t."
MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. -- Ford Motor Co. is working to transform Detroit into a Silicon Valley for the auto industry, Chairman Bill Ford Jr. said today.
The automaker announced two initiatives today to increase entrepreneurship. Its Jump Start program creates affordable spaces for startups in Michigan and the Motor City Innovation Exchange will offer entrepreneurs guidance on ways to commercialize their ideas and innovations.
“Silicon Valley has a culture of capital formation and risk taking. We don’t,” Ford said in a keynote address here at the Mackinac Policy Conference, an annual gathering of Michigan’s business and political leaders.
“Stanford and Berkeley encourage their top students to pursue this path, and venture capitalists swarm the Valley to find new ideas,” Ford said. “Michigan must match this intensity to ensure the next generation of transportation technologies develop” in the state.
Through the Jump Start program, entrepreneurs or startups will be able to cheaply lease office, garage, lab and assembly space in Ford-owned buildings throughout metro Detroit.
“Supporting innovation and entrepreneurialism benefits the entire region,” Donna Inch, CEO of Ford’s real estate arm, said in a statement. “By lowering startup costs, we will enable more businesses to get off the ground and have a better chance of being successful.”
This month, TechShop Detroit, a 17,000-square-foot facility offering classes, tools and workshop space for inventors, opened in a Ford-owned building near the automaker’s Dearborn world headquarters.
The Motor City Innovation Exchange will be an extension of that program, and is co-sponsored by AutoHarvest Foundation, a Detroit nonprofit that aims to develop relationships between entrepreneurs and auto industry executives, and TechTown, a business incubator at Wayne State University.
“Bringing TechShop to Detroit was the critical first step in the creation of the Innovation Exchange,” William Coughlin, CEO of Ford Global Technologies, said in a statement. “It will be an open meeting place that will enable inventors to showcase what they create in TechShop and then negotiate, network and even sell their prototyped solutions to players in the automotive industry, from manufacturers and suppliers to research institutions and startups.”
Together, the Innovation Exchange and AutoHarvest aim to give startups a way to connect with auto industry companies and give them the opportunity to license, market and commercialize their ideas.
Similarly, through the Innovation Exchange, entrepreneurs will be able to regularly receive advice and guidance from experts at TechTown and TechShop.
A larger culture of entrepreneurship
Ford said the automaker’s moves to help new businesses are representative of larger trends in the auto industry.
Automakers, Ford said, are working with nontraditional suppliers, and he highlighted Ford Motor’s relationship with Google and Microsoft that created the software that powers Ford’s Sync system.
“They operate in a real-time world, and we are becoming quite good, but not where we need to be, at operating along that same cadence with them.”
To that end, Ford said the company opened an office in Silicon Valley in January to keep abreast of advancements in technology and to reach out to entrepreneurs.
Long way from home
“If you’re a young startup in Silicon Valley and you have great ideas, Dearborn, Michigan, is a long way away, and you don’t know who to talk to; you have no idea how to get your foot in the door,” Ford said. “A big part of the Silicon Valley office is to allow young entrepreneurs to have access to us as a company, and for those people out there to act as conduits to bring them in.”
Ford said he was so excited about the office’s prospects and the statement it was making about the company’s future that he traveled to California to visit the office. He said he inadvertently surprised the office’s first employee -- a Stanford graduate who was “exactly the young person we were looking for,” he said.
“I showed up and this poor kid from Stanford was walking around,” Ford said. “I think he knew who I was, but I don’t think he was quite prepared for it.”
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