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Techstars Detroit announces first class after major refocus

By Matt Burns

At the beginning of 2019, Techstars Mobility turned into Techstars Detroit. At the time of the announcement, Managing Director Ted Serbinski penned “the word mobility was becoming too limiting. We knew we needed to reach a broader audience of entrepreneurs who may not label themselves as mobility but are great candidates for the program.”

I always called it Techstars Detroit anyway.

With Techstars Detroit, the program is looking for startups transforming the intersection of the physical and digital worlds that can leverage the strengths of Detroit to succeed. It’s a mouthful, but makes sense. Mobility is baked into Detroit, but Detroit is more than mobility.

Today the program took the wraps off the first class of startups under the new direction.

Techstars has operated in Detroit since 2015 and has been a critical partner in helping the city rebuild. Since its launch, Serbinski and the Techstars Mobility (now Detroit) mentors have helped bring talented engineers and founders to the city.

Serbinski summed up Detroit nicely for me, saying, “No longer is Detroit telling the world how to move. The world is telling Detroit how it wants to move.” He added the incoming class represents the new Detroit, with 60% international and 40% female founders.


Airspace Link (Detroit, MI)
Providing highways in the sky for safer drone operations.

Alpha Drive (New York, NY)
Platform for the validation of autonomous vehicle AI.

Le Car (Novi, MI)
An AI-powered personal car concierge that matches you to your perfect vehicle fit.

Octane (Fremont, CA)
Octane is a mobile app that connects car enthusiasts to automotive events and to each other out on the road.

PPAP Manager (Chihuahua, Mexico)
A platform to streamline the approval of packets of documents required in the automotive industry, known as PPAP, to validate production parts.

Ruksack (Toronto, Canada)
Connecting travelers with local travel experts to help them plan a perfect trip.

Soundtrack AI (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Acoustics-based and AI-enabled Predictive Maintenance Platform.

Teporto (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Teporto is enabling a new commute modality with its one-click smart platform for transportation companies that seamlessly adapts commuter service to commuters’ needs.

Unlimited Engineering (Barcelona, Spain)
Unlimited develops modular Light Electric Vehicles as a fun, cheap and convenient solution to last-mile trips that are overserved by cars and public transportation.

Zown (Toronto, Canada)
Open up your real estate property to the new mobility marketplace.

Where May Mobility’s self-driving shuttles might show up next

By Kirsten Korosec

May Mobility might be operating low-speed self-driving shuttles in three U.S. cities, but its founders don’t view this as just another startup racing to deploy autonomous vehicle technology.

They describe the Ann Arbor-based company as a transportation service provider. As May Mobility’s co-founder and COO Alisyn Malek told TechCrunch, they’re in the “business of moving people.” Autonomous vehicle technology is just the “killer feature” to help them do that. 

TechCrunch recently spent the day with May Mobility in Detroit, where it first launched, to get a closer look at its operations, learn where it might be headed next and why companies in the industry are starting to back off previously ambitious timelines.

Malek will elaborate on what markets are most appealing to May Mobility while onstage at TC Sessions: Mobility on July 10 in San Jose. Malek will join Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli, head of partner product and programs at Aurora, to talk about what product makes the most sense for autonomous vehicle technology.

Lifestyle goods resale marketplace StockX raises $110M, pushing valuation past $1B

By Darrell Etherington

Detroit-based StockX, which provides a way for people to resell luxury and lifestyle goods including streetwear, bags, watches and shoes, is now valued at over $1 billion based on its most recent raise of $110 million, just revealed by the New York Times. Alongside the raise, StockX is bringing on a new CEO – ecommerce vet and former eBay SVP Scott Cutler.

Cutler replaces co-founder Josh Luber at the helm of the company, but he’ll continue to be the “public face” of the company according to the NYT, which is not unusual for a founder-led company when it brings on more traditionally experienced executives to steer the startup through periods of aggressive growth and business maturation.

StockX’s success rode the sneaker culture boom of the past half-decade or so, as the startup first focused exclusively on acting as a resale source for shoes with high levels of hype. Their unique value prop, for consumers, was offering a verification service so that you knew when you were buying (often at a premium, and often so-called ‘deadstock’ or stuff that’s new in condition but not available through typical consumer sales channels) was the real deal.

The company expanded from there into new categories, first with watches, then handbags, and most recently streetwear – all categories where high potential for fraud mean that consumers are willing to pay more for some assurance of authenticity.

Also unique to StockX is its treatment of the marketplace as analogous to a public stock exchange, with shoe releases, watch, bag and clothing SKUs replacing companies as the trade commodity. The app for StockX displays charts trending value and features bids and calls, making it similar in concept to another company where new CEO Cutler has experience – the NYSE.

With this funding, the company will focus on growing its international business and also do more with selling new products, which it has done on occasion for select releases, but which hasn’t been a primary focus of its business to date.

Why eVTOLs could be providing regional air service sooner than you think

By Darrell Etherington

At Uber’s Elevate summit in Washington, DC earlier this month, researchers, industry leaders and engineers gathered to celebrate the approaching advent of on-demand air service. For Dr. Anita Sengupta, co-founder and Chief Product Office at Detroit’s Airspace Experience Technologies (abbreviated ASX), it was an event full of validation of her company’s specific approach to making electric vertical take-off and landing craft a working, commercially viable reality.

ASX’s eVTOL design is a tilt-wing design, which is distinct from the tilt-rotor design you might see on some of the splashier concept vehicles in the category. As you might’ve inferred from the name of each type of aircraft, with tilt-wing designs the entire wing of the aircraft can change orientation, while on tilt-rotor, just the rotor itself adjust independent of the wing structure.

The benefits of ASX’s tilt-wing choice, according to Sengupta, is speed to market and compatibility with existing regulatory and pilot licensing frameworks – and that’s why ASX could be providing cargo transport service relatively quickly for paying customers, with passenger travel to follow once regulators and the public get comfortable with the idea.

ASX founding team Jon Rimanelli and Dr. Anita Sengupta. Credit: ASX

“Depending upon the aircraft configuration you selected, like us, for example, we’re basically a fixed wing aircraft,” Sengupta explained. “So we would not be classified as a rotorcraft, we’d be classified as a fixed wing aircraft with multi-engine, just with obviously special certification features for the VTOL capability. And of course, special check out for the pilots, but the pilots also would be fixed wing aircraft, pilots, they wouldn’t be helicopter pilots.”

ASX’s vehicle design means that it can either take off vertically when space is tight, or do a more traditional short horizontal take off like the airplanes we use every day. That not only makes it easier to use for pilots with more conventional training and experience, but it also means it can slot into existing infrastructure relatively easily and make use of underused regional airports that already dot the U.S.

“Most people who don’t fly for fun don’t realize that there are general aviation airports all over the place, that are underutilized, because only people like me, who fly for fun [Sengupta is also a pilot], use them frequently,” she said. ” Like where we’re located at Detroit City Airport, on a given day, there could sometimes only be like three planes that go in and out of it. So this is infrastructure, which is already funded, paid for and operated by governments, but isn’t utilized. And you can use them in this new UAM [Urban Air Mobility] space, whether it’s for people or for cargo, it’s actually a really good thing, because the challenge of any new transportation system is the cost of infrastructure.”

ASX has also moved quickly to get aircraft up in the sky, which is better help in terms of its own path to commercialization. It’s built six scaled down demonstration and testing aircraft, including five one-fifth scale and one that’s one-third the size of the eventual production version. These testing aircraft can demonstrate all their modes of flight within easy view of the Detroit City Airport airspace control and monitoring.

“We believe, and when you’re really cash strapped your small company, getting a lot of work at the subscale just allows you to do a lot more iterating, prototyping, and learning, basically how to control the vehicle,” Sengupta told me. “From a software perspective, it’s only when you get to that point, when you’re comfortable with a configuration, that it’s really worth your while to go off and build the full scale one. So with this next round [of funding, ASX’s second after raising just over $1 million last year]we’re going to go off and build this out at scale.”

Ultimately, Sengupta and ASX want to help usher in an era of air travel that creates efficiencies by changing the economics of regional and electric flight, and its attracting interest from investors and industry partners alike, including global transportation service provider TPS Logistics, with which it just signed a new MOU to work together on sussing out the opportunities of the eVTOL logistics market.

“Right now you you see a lot of congestion in airports, within beings, you’re going to have congestion coming in, you’re going to have to build a different professional parking lots and runways and all kinds of huge expense, if you can use these general aviation airports as regional centers to do that travel, you can take it away from the commercial, so they actually solve a lot of other problems,” Sengupta said. “For routes of let’s say 300 miles, you probably would need to do a hybrid power solution first, just because the energy density better isn’t there yet. But that’s the whole nicer than having it be fully fueled. And then hopefully […] hydrogen fuel cells is obviously something where you can get the energy needed in each of those regional flights. So by kick-starting this electric aviation use case for the shorter range, urban flights, you kind of kickstart the industry to push it over to fully electric vehicles for regional travel.”

Argo AI is taking its new generation of self-driving vehicles into downtown Detroit

By Kirsten Korosec

Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based autonomous vehicle startup that Ford invested $1 billion in 2017, has expanded its testing to downtown Detroit with a new third-generation self-driving car.

Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. The third-generation self-driving vehicle is still based on a Ford Fusion Hybrid like its previous test cars.

This latest iteration has a number of mechanical, sensing, compute and software upgrades that will take the company a step closer to production specification. Importantly, these vehicles also have redundant braking and steering systems that help maintain vehicle motion control in case one of the units stops functioning.

The new cars are equipped with an upgraded sensor suite, including new sets of radar and cameras with higher resolution and higher dynamic range as well as a new computing system that has better processing power and improved thermal management systems, according to Argo AI co-founder and president Peter Rander.

This third-generation vehicle is being used on all the cities Argo is testing in.

Argo AI does much of its testing in Pittsburgh, where it’s based. The company is also testing its autonomous vehicle technology in Austin, Miami, Palo Alto, Washington, D.C., and Dearborn, Michigan. This latest expansion brings Argo’s test vehicles to Detroit, specifically Corktown and sections of downtown around Campus Martius Park.

Corktown is the center of Ford’s electric and autonomous vehicles business plan. The automaker will spend the next several years transforming at least 1.2 million square feet of space in Corktown and ultimately a “mobility corridor,” that ties hubs of research, testing and development in the academic hub of Ann Arbor to Ford’s Dearborn headquarters, and finally to Detroit.

Ford plans to spend $4 billion through 2023 under an LLC that’s dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business. Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC will house the company’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous-vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams. The $4 billion spending plan includes the $1 billion investment in Argo AI.

Delane Parnell’s plan to conquer amateur esports

By Eric Peckham

Most of the buzz about esports focuses on high-profile professional teams and audiences watching live streams of those professionals.

What gets ignored is the entire base of amateurs wanting to compete in esports below the professional tier. This is like talking about the NBA and the value of its sponsorships and broadcast rights as if that is the entirety of the basketball market in the US.

Los Angeles-based PlayVS (pronounced “play versus”) wants to become the dominant platform for amateur esports, starting at the high school level. The company raised $46 million last year—its first year operating—with the vision that owning the infrastructure for competitions and expanding it to encompass other social elements of gaming can make it the largest gaming company in the world.

I recently sat down with Founder & CEO Delane Parnell to talk about his company’s formation and growth strategy. Below is the transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Founding PlayVS

Eric P: You have a fascinating background as a serial entrepreneur while you were a teenager.

Delane P.: I grew up on the west side of Detroit and started working at the cell phone store of a family friend when I was 13. When I turned 16 or so, I joined two guys in opening our own Metro PCS franchise. And then two additional franchises. And I was on the founding team of a car rental company called Executive Rental Car.

Eric P: And this segued into tech startups after meeting Jon Triest from Ludlow Ventures?

Delane P: He got me a ticket to the Launch conference in SF, and that experience inspired me to start a Fireside Chat series in Detroit that brought in people like Brian Wong from Kiip and Alexis Ohanian from Reddit to speak. Starting at 21, I worked at a venture capital firm called IncWell based in Birmingham, Michigan then joined a startup called Rocket Fiber.

We were focused on internet infrastructure – this is 2015-ish – and I was appointed to lead our strategy in esports. So I met with many of the publishers, ancillary startups, tournament organizers, and OG players and team owners. Through the process, I became passionate about esports and ended up leaving Rocket Fiber to start a Call of Duty team that I quickly sold to TSM.

Eric P: What then drove you to found PlayVS? Did it seem like an obvious opportunity or did it take you a while to figure it out?

Delane P.: What esports means is playing video games competitively bound to governance and a competitive ruleset. As a player, what that experience means is you play on a team, in a position, with a coach, in a season that culminates in some sort of championship.

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