Silicon Cities
These Mobility-Minded Tech Startups Are Revving Detroit’s Economic Engine
Kim Lachance Shandrow | March 2, 2017

In Detroit, innovative startups are injecting disruptive new technology into the city’s renowned automotive industry – and in the process, they’re revving the Motor City’s economic engine.

One such startup breathing a breath of fresh, innovative air into the Motor City and the mobility industry is SPLT, the upstart behind a ridesharing app that helps people who work for the same company organize commuter carpools.

The company, originally based in New York City and now headquartered in Detroit, helps riders save money and time on commuting and lower their carbon footprints at the same time. SPLT partners directly with corporations to develop private, customized enterprise-level ridesharing solutions.

The idea for the startup occurred to Babbitt on a smoggy weekday morning in Los Angeles. The serial entrepreneur had been living in L.A. for two months and commuted daily from a hotel to an office. One day, the hotel shuttle was overbooked and she was left in the lurch.

“At 7 a.m., I was stuck, without a ride,” she told Free Enterprise. “The good news is two guys who were headed in the same direction and they offered to split a ride with me. Out of that one ride, SPLT was born. Since then, the idea has evolved, though its vision has remained the same: to change the way people meet and move worldwide by providing reliable, affordable mobility access for all.”

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And “for all” doesn’t just encompass corporate employees, she says. University students and residents living in the same cities, and working within the same organizations, also use SPLT to “easily meet, match and share commutes” using their own vehicles.

Babbitt launched SPLT of out of Detroit in 2015 while taking part in a Techstars accelerator initiative there that’s geared toward entrepreneurial innovation in the mobility arena. She says she specifically came to the Motor City to participate in Techstars Mobility, an auto industry-targeted, 13-week early venture boot camp offered by the widely celebrated Boulder, Colo.-based accelerator. Her company is one of about 20 startups to emerge from the ambitious program so far.

She says she took part not just to “solve the transportation problems of the Motor City,” but to connect with key suppliers and manufacturers, and with the many fellow forward-thinking mobility entrepreneurs to flock to the urban center in recent years.

SPLT founder and CEO Anya Babbitt.

SPLT founder and CEO Anya Babbitt.

“Detroit has welcomed us with open arms and has become not only our workplace, but our home as well,” she said. “The entrepreneurial spirit of Detroit is unmatched as has throttled our business forward in every way imaginable. The city of Detroit has been receptive and supported us from the government to the street level.”

SPLT also received early support from leading Techstars Mobility sponsor Ford Motor Company, notably from Bill Ford, the corporation’s executive chairman (and through his next-generation urban mobility investment fund, Fontinalis Partners). None too shabby a resource for a scrappy startup, you might say, and a connection that likely wouldn’t have been made without a big leg up from Techstars, a well-resourced mover and shaker at the heart of Detroit’s entrepreneurial rejuvenation.

The accelerator’s mission when it comes to the Motor City and, more broadly, the larger transportation and mobility sector is to “Break down silos and work across the industry to build partnerships.”

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Under the leadership of former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Detroit Venture Partners founding partner Ted Serbinksi — who left San Francisco in 2011 to “fuel the entrepreneurial gold rush in Detroit” — Techstars Mobility has already produced results. Since arriving in Detroit in 2014, including SPLT, the group has graduated two classes of 10 fast-growing, mobility-focused tech startups that are now at the forefront of the city’s burgeoning entrepreneurial renaissance.

As Serbinski puts it, lean, early stage technology upstarts like Babbitt’s SPLT were the “first missing ingredient to building a thriving startup” ecosystem in Detroit. Today, the accelerator continues to help reshape the future of mobility from its 2000 Brush Street downtown nerve center, rather fittingly located inside the Detroit Lions’ Ford Field.

“Detroit is the automotive hub of the world. Michigan has more engineers per capita than anywhere else,” Serbinski noted on his blog. “Yet today, Detroit’s startup culture is lacking the national recognition it deserves. This is in stark contrast to nearly 100 years ago when Detroit was the epicenter of innovation.”

He continued: “Combining the emergence of Detroit’s startup ecosystem with its heritage of automotive, Techstars Mobility is going to drive the next-generation of mobility-focused companies right here in downtown Detroit.”

The SPLT app helps coworkers split their commutes and lower their carbon footprints.

The SPLT app helps coworkers split their commutes and lower their carbon footprints.

Additional Techstars Mobility sponsors who pitched in resources and general support for Detroit Techstars-accelerated startups like SPLT include: Dana Holding Corporation, Honda R&D Americas, Magna International, Michelin, McDonald’s, Verizon Telematics and others.

Participating startups soak up exceptional access to a network of more than 150 mentors across 38 different automotive and transportation companies. This year, Techstars Mobility cohort members will even get to rub elbows with key influencers from the legendary Detroit Auto Show, which Serbinski and his team recently announced as a 2017 program partner.

“We initially came to Detroit for Techstars Mobility and to benefit from the tremendous experience in the automotive world,” Babbitt said, “but we stayed because of the relationships we forged with partners, investors, customers and neighbors.”

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Almost two years since SPLT’s launch, Babbitt says Detroit is still “keeping our engines going.” However, at the same time, it poses one very considerable challenge to her startup, and that’s the ease and speed with which she can grow her team. “It’s not always easy here with the lesser amount of available talent,” she said, “but we make it work.”

Also continuing to give SPLT a healthy push in “making it work” in Motown are a host of public, private and nonprofit entities. Among the former are The City of Detroit’s Mayor’s Office, which Babbitt says has helped her company “every step of the way,” and the University of Michigan on a more general level. From the local private sector, she points to Bamboo Detroit, a bustling coworking space in the heart of the Metro Detroit area, and to Ann Arbor Spark, a local economic development engine. Finally, hailing from the nonprofit sector, Babbitt credits NextEnergy, a 501(c)(3) that focuses on driving advanced energy investment and job creation throughout Michigan.

“Detroit is a city that takes care of its own with a strong sense of pride,” Babbitt said. “Here, we’re positioned squarely at the intersection of shared use, enterprise and autonomous innovation, bringing a whole new dimension to an industry that is changing by the day.”

SPLT is far from the only player revving up disruptive mobility innovation in Detroit. Other notable Techstars Mobility-accelerated startups to recently spring out of the birthplace of the auto industry are: Braiq, a startup that personalizes the connected-car ride experience by teaching embedded artificial intelligence (AI) how to understand human emotions; Elegus Technologies, launched out of the University of Michigan, which creates battery separator technology designed to enable safer, longer lasting electric car batteries; GearBrake, a startup that makes a smart motorcycle brake light modulator that detects when a motorcycle is slowing down and automatically illuminates the brake lights to reduce the risk of rear-end collisions; and Spatial AI, a company that provides in-vehicle AI assistance sourced from real-time social data.