Startups converge in the Motor City

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The world of mobility is much bigger than simply driving cars.
Truckers who haul products on a daily basis, or dealership service shops that keep vehicles humming are a key piece in the transport of people and goods.
The startup realm is bustling with fresh ideas that will impact those areas and many more.
Automotive News profiled 10 startups with Techstars Mobility, driven by Detroit, a new business incubator that is bringing a Silicon Valley-like energy to the Motor City. The startups have been headquartered at a 10,000-square-foot office at Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, since June.
Ford, Honda R&D Americas and supplier Magna International are among the corporate sponsors for the program.
 
 

Repair-shop photos to customers
Company: My Dealer Service
Product: Web-based app for connecting automotive service departments to customers via text and email
Selling a customer about a problem with his vehicle after he drops it off at the service shop for an inspection may not be enough to close the deal.
But showing him exactly what’s wrong can put a lasting image in his mind that pushes him to get the work done.
My Dealer Service, a Denver software company, has developed an app for service centers that enables mechanics to easily send photos to customers of needed repair work.
The Web-based MDS Notify app also allows service shops to send text/email estimates and updates to a person’s phone. The product is being tested at a few shops, and the plan this summer is to push it further into the market.
Peter Mills, vice president of product at My Dealer Service, said: “We’re providing workflow management tools that really connect with customers [and] that improve customer experience: text messaging updates to customers, allowing service departments to send photos directly to customers to show them what repairs need to be done.”
Mills added: “We can also do estimates, too. If you’re getting your car repaired, they can send it right to your phone. You can approve it on your phone.”
“We’re providing workflow management tools that really connect with customers.
-- Mills

Hit the brakes -- without the brakes
Company: GearBrake
Product: Module illuminates brake lights when vehicles begin slowing
Research cited by the National Transportation Safety Board shows that having one extra second of warning time can prevent 90 percent of rear-end collisions.
GearBrake’s safety module flashes the brake light whenever a motorcycle slows, even if the driver is not activating the brake, to warn following motorists.
The module is designed for motorcycles, but the concept also applies to electric vehicles, said Chris Bailey, CEO of GearBrake.
When a driver lifts his foot from the accelerator in some EVs using regenerative braking, the vehicle starts slowing but the brake lights don’t illuminate.
“We’re detecting any time that a vehicle is slowing down, then we automatically light the brake lights,” Bailey said. “The reason that is really important is because in electric and manual vehicles like motorcycles, … they can slow down really effectively without the use of their brakes by downshifting or engine braking.”
The GearBrake module, which attaches to the brake light system, has been on the market for a year. The device uses a microprocessor and an accelerometer.
Now the Louisville, Ky., company, which has been operating in the motorcycle segment, hopes to gain traction with automakers.
“That’s why we’re here,” Bailey said. “Even if we don’t get to work with them, just being able to learn from them and really understand the market is going to be huge.”
“We’re detecting any time that a vehicle is slowing down, then we automatically light the brake lights.”
-- Bailey
Making deliveries more efficient
Company: WISE Systems
Product: Logistics software for any company that delivers goods
WISE Systems has found a niche in one of the core areas of mobility: the transport of goods.
Born out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, WISE Systems has developed software to make deliveries more efficient.
The company’s software, built with on-demand deliveries in mind, helps companies assign tasks to the right drivers in real time, said CEO Chazz Sims.
The product, also offered on iPhones and iPads, enables companies to adjust and schedule deliveries as well.
The goals for WISE Systems this summer include building partnerships and finding potential customers.
“We’re always looking to see how we can better customer relationships and customer development,” said Sims, who earned his master of engineering degree in computer science from MIT in September. “That is something you don’t learn a whole lot of coming out of school. We’re excited to get that type of mentorship in a place like this.”
Customer relations "is something you don’t learn a whole lot of coming out of school.”
-- Sims
Keeping the charge in batteries
Company: Elegus Technologies
Product: Battery separator
As innovators look to zip people from place to place, electric vehicles have frequently found their way into the mobility equation.
EVs are convenient options for vehicle-sharing users who may need to take a quick trip around town.
Elegus Technologies says that its product — if adopted by automakers one day — couldensure those trips go without a hitch.
The company, a spinoff from the University of Michigan, has a Kevlar-based battery component called a separator that prevents certain areas within batteries from touching, said Daniel VanderLey, co-founder of Elegus Technologies.
The flexible sheets separate a battery’s anode and cathode. This is a crucial task because if those pieces touch, all of a battery’s energy would be discharged at once, VanderLey said.
The separator can be used in several types of batteries, including lithium ion, lithium sulfur and lithium air. The university spent more than five years developing the technology, VanderLey said. The separator can be used in products such as EVs, cellphones and laptops.
VanderLey said the company has been working closely with an automotive battery manufacturer. It has been in talks with General Motors along with Ford Motor Co., one of Techstars Mobility, driven by Detroit’s corporate sponsors, about its technology before the Techstars Mobility program began in June.
He said a battery component startup hoping to break into the car business has to deal with a five-year wait to a get a product into vehicles.
“It’s a tall order. That’s why we have to go do the cellphone play [and] the laptop play to fill the void,” VanderLey said. “These are the real challenges of startup life.”
“It’s a tall order."
-- VenderLey on the wait time to get a product into cars
Classic car-sharing
Company: Classics & Exotics
Product: Platform in which owners of “dream cars” can rent them to prescreened customers
Getting people from point A to point B is the mission of mobility options such as car sharing. But what if people want to travel in style?
Classics & Exotics targets enthusiasts who want to rent rides for the thrill of it.
A quick browse through recent classicsandexotics.com listings shows an array of vehicles that likely are on a few “dream car” lists.
A 1965 Ford Mustang, 1975 Chevrolet Camaro, 1972 Ferrari Daytona and even a 1937 Packard Super 8 are among the vehicles available for rent.
Some people might own three or four classics that sit in a garage and never get used, said Classics & Exotics CEO Peter Zawadzki. He said his company provides a platform that allows those owners to recoup costs. With enough renters, vehicle owners could earn enough to pay their storage fees, maintenance costs and insurance, he said.
Owners set their own prices, and can add other requirements such as daily mileage limits. The Cape Cod, Mass., company was founded in 2014.
“We want to get people back into enjoying the visceral experience of driving a car. When you drive a car today, you don’t have that feel. You don’t have that connection to the vehicle,” Zawadzki said.
He added, “We want to show people what driving a car used to feel like and introduce a whole new generation of people into classic and exotic car ownership, and into what it means to drive one of these amazing cars.”
“We want to get people back into enjoying the visceral experience of driving a car."
-- Zawadzki
Bidding online for vehicle repairs
Company: Ansik
Products: Diagnostic software; hood and trunk lid support
The vehicle service center is crucial to the movement of people and goods.
Ansik, a Kitchener, Ontario, company, has found a home in the service business with new diagnostic software that streamlines bidding, and a device that prevents vehicle hoods and trunk lids from falling on service techs.
Ansik’s PitStop app empowers the consumer in need of repair work and the service shops.
Consumers who have downloaded the app from the Apple Store or Google Play Store plug a device into their vehicle’s on-board diagnostic port, which then connects to their phones via Bluetooth.
A vehicle report is generated, which the consumers can access on their phones.
The report is sent to a marketplace where dealerships and technicians using the software can provide quotes in real time, possible service appointment times and further insights into the problem. The consumers can view all of this on their phones.
PitStop eliminates the need for consumers to go from shop to shop to find the best deals, said Yashin Shah, co-founder of Ansik. It also makes drivers smarter about their vehicles, he said.
Added Ansik CEO and co-founder Shiva Bhardwaj: “We’re trying to take diagnostic repair technology to the next step to drive efficiency. For a mechanic, efficiency is the No. 1 thing. They get paid on how many billable hours they produce in a day.”
Ansik’s other product, ShockLock, protects service techs from falling vehicle hoods and trunk lids. Such accidents led to 11,000 injuries last year, Bhardwaj said. ShockLock clamps onto failing gas struts to keep the hood or trunk lid up — a convenient solution compared with the old broomstick.
Ansik’s goal this summer is to lock in 1,000 dealership users of PitStop, while furthering distribution of ShockLock to get between 1,000 and 2,000 of the devices in the market. Bhardwaj, who grew up working in his father’s repair shop, said 300 ShockLocks had been sold before Techstars Mobility, driven by Detroit began in June.
Ride-sharing, fare-sharing app
Company: Splitting Fares
Product: Social ride-sharing app
Ride-sharing is going social.
Splitting Fares, a New York startup, has designed a social ride-sharing app called SPLT that can connect people with common starting points and destinations. The platform lets users share fares and pick who they ride with.
The app’s goal: reduce traffic while lessening the carbon footprints of users.
SPLT will have a pilot test this summer in the Detroit area, a company spokeswoman said, and will be operating in Detroit and New York by year end.
“It’s the perfect intersection of utility [and] social. For the first time, we’re giving the users complete control over the experience in allowing [them] to choose their ride,” said Anya Babbitt, CEO of Splitting Fares.
“They log in through LinkedIn or Facebook. It allows them to decide who they wish to share that ride with, and then also what type of vehicle they wish to take — whether that’s an Uber, a Lyft or taxi. It gives users a choice.”
After downloading the app and logging in, a user selects a starting point, destination and time for the ride. SPLT lets the user know of other users with similar selections and enables them to share rides. Babbitt said the company plans to hone its product development strategy this summer and learn what features excite its users.
“Our mission is to see ride-sharing throughout the world and every major city,” Babbitt said. “In five years, we will have reached most of the major markets in the United States and also internationally.”
“It’s the perfect intersection of utility [and] social.
-- Babbitt
Auto enthusiasts’ connection site
Company: Motoroso
Product: Automotive social network
Motoroso’s social platform is a haven for the flashier side of mobility.
Automakers and aftermarket parts companies use Motoroso as a marketing tool, posting photos and videos that highlight features and pricing for components such as chrome wheels.
Enthusiasts create profiles on the site to connect with various brands and other car lovers.
The Silicon Valley-based site, featuring more than 200 brand profiles from the likes of Porsche and Chevrolet Performance, was launched in September 2014.
Brands engage with the Motoroso community in a variety of ways.
Chevrolet Performance, for example, is promoting the sixth-generation Camaro on its Motoroso profile. The Camaro photos have clickable icons that play videos or share information about such topics as the car’s aerodynamics and aluminum suspension components.
Wheel companies post photos of cars outfitted with their products. People can click on the information icons on the wheels to learn more about pricing.
“We address the lifestyle segment of the mobility market. About 20 percent of U.S. drivers are considered to be hard-core enthusiasts, so we’re talking about 40 million people,” said Alex Littlewood, CEO of Motoroso. “For many of those people, automotive and power sports are a lifestyle. It does matter what their vehicle looks like and [how it] performs. It’s the visceral feelings they get from it.”
“For many of those people, automotive and power sports are a lifestyle."
-- Littlewood
CDL Warrior makes life easier for truckers
Company: Next Gauge Inc.
Product: CDL Warrior smartphone-based fleet management system
Trucking may be an “unsexy” part of the economy, but it’s a necessary one, says Jim Ruiz, CEO of Next Gauge Inc.
So Next Gauge is trying to make life on the road as convenient as possible for truckers with its CDL Warrior mobile app.
CDL Warrior is a smartphone-based fleet management system that helps drivers with tasks such as finding parking spots, monitoring driving hours and tracking shipments. CDL Warrior targets fleets with 25 trucks or fewer, which make up around 90 percent of the trucking industry, Ruiz said.
Next Gauge, of Pittsburgh, was incorporated in 2014.
“While there’s been technology out there that can help large fleets track their trucks and communicate with drivers, that technology hasn’t really been adopted by small fleets,” Ruiz said. “Part of it is affordability, part of it is flexibility and a big part of it is driver adoption [and] driver friendliness of those systems.
“We’re trying to use smartphones that 80 percent of truck drivers already own and create things that are very much driver-focused. We call it driver-first fleet management.”
“Part of it is affordability, part of it is flexibility and a big part of it is driver adoption [and] driver friendliness of those systems."
-- Ruiz
Internet, no Wi-Fi
Company: Cosmos Browser
Product: Browser that provides Internet access without Wi-fi
The mobility of information is just as critical as the movement of people and goods.
The Cosmos Browser provides Internet via SMS (text messaging), where no data or Wi-Fi is required.
“The idea is we go to developing countries. We deploy this for free. We give a bunch of people free Internet access,” says Hunter Rosenblume, the startup’s CEO.
“This Internet doesn’t have images, doesn’t have music streaming and doesn’t have video. We advertise that if they pay for a data plan, they’ll receive that content.”
“The idea is we go to developing countries. We deploy this for free. We give a bunch of people free Internet access."
-- Hunter

You can reach Vince Bond Jr. at vbond@crain.com -- Follow Vince on Twitter: @VinceBond86

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