Long before he returned to Detroit, Tarun Kajeepeta began mulling alternatives to traditional car ownership or car rentals, neither of which was practical or affordable while he was working as a temporary consultant in Melbourne, Australia.
The suburban Detroit native envisioned a flexible vehicle ownership program, an idea that took a firm hold last summer after he realized the Motor City – not unlike some other big American cities – lends itself to early adoption, thanks to its large transient population, high GDP metropolitan area and poor public transit.
But Detroit also offered something else, a unique tool to help startups and other companies to gain traction in the emerging mobility and autonomous vehicle sectors: the PlanetM Landing Zone.
A collaboration between the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the PlanetM Landing Zone not only offers subsidized office space but also access to key services, potential customers, partners and stakeholders in the mobility and autonomous vehicle ecosystem, OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers.
“There is nothing like the Landing Zone in Michigan, it is the first-of its-kind,” said Devon O’Reilly, manager of Entrepreneurship and Detroit Engagement for the Detroit Regional Chamber. “Both (organizations) had this similar vision of creating physical space for the world’s best mobility companies to do business and connect with the automotive and mobility ecosystems in Michigan. It’s more than a business incubator or business accelerator. We are working with companies that are past that stage, ready to bring products to market, if they haven’t already.”
Since its opening last fall in the WeWork Merchant’s Row location along Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit, 22 companies have landed at the PlanetM Landing Zone. Among the products or services offered are ride sharing, month-to-month vehicle subscription, artificial intelligence, sensor-radar companies and data mapping.
“There is lot of diversity among members,” O’Reilly said, noting Landing Zone industry partners include Ford Motor Co., DENSO, and Bosch, which offer guidance and support during the startups’ development stage. “We’ve seen a lot of interest. Global mobility startups recognize the Detroit region is one of a few global automotive markets best suited to test, deploy, and sell their technology. They quickly see the benefit of the Landing Zone as well as the Detroit Regional Chamber and the PlanetM teams in how we can provide in helping them connect to the automotive industry leaders.”
Some of the success stories include Condor Detroit, which offers month-to-month vehicle subscriptions and was recently acquired by Mobiliti, and others like DERQ, which landed a deployment project with the Michigan Department of Transportation, and SPLT, which created a platform for coworkers to carpool and was acquired by Bosch in February.
For Kajeepeta, the Landing Zone provided many useful connections on various levels, including exposure to public and private partnerships, media publicity and exposure at conferences and speaking engagements, and with enablers, such as insurance companies. One of the hurdles Kajeepeta faced in launching his company was finding insurance providers.
“It’s great to be in an energizing work space with other companies that are part of the mobility ecosystem,” he said. “There ends up being a lot of collaboration and it ends up yielding a ton of tactical results.”
Those industry connections and interactions also have proved fruitful for Derq, Inc., a Dubai company that tapped the Landing Zone as its U.S. headquarters after success in the Techstars Mobility incubator program in Detroit. The company, whose technology is based on a patent developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uses artificial intelligence to warn drivers of imminent danger from other vehicles, such as sensing when drivers might appear to run a red light.
“It’s been very helpful to us,” said Will Foss, U.S. business lead for Derq and among the staff that works in Detroit. “We didn’t know what to expect but it’s been a great opportunity for us to stay engaged. We also see how the state and the Detroit region are committed to this type of technology. It’s good for us.”
The company, which has a contract with MDOT to monitor one of the city’s craziest intersections – Jefferson and Randolph, near the Renaissance Center, the entrance to the Detroit-Windsor tunnel and I-75, has no plans to leave the Landing Zone anytime soon.
“We’ll be using the space as long as we can. We have plans to grow here in Michigan, but I think we’ll be able to stay and keep using the Landing Zone,” he said. “It’s pretty cool and we’re excited to be a part of it.”
The PlanetM Landing Zone also has provided opportunities for SPLT, whose ride-sharing services have found new interest in some of Michigan’s more rural counties, including Grand Traverse County, Benzie County and Allegan County, thanks to introductions made in Detroit.
“We have so much to say about the Landing Zone,” said Yale Zhang, SPLT co-founder. “We are happy to be a part of it. The space is one thing but the number of connections and introductions and just the access to people … it’s just been so beneficial. It’s just been amazing.”
SPLT hopes to maintain its presence at the Landing Zone and to continue to take advantage of the passion among the companies operating there, helping drive the future.
Says Zhang: “We strongly encourage any mobility company to establish in Michigan and have their space there.”