When investor Chris Thomas, co-founder and partner at Fontinalis Partners
, talks about mobility, he's referring to autonomous vehicles. But he’s also talking about the technology’s potential to move people forward in their careers.
And, along with it, the city of Detroit.
But first, before Detroit can be a true center of artificial intelligence, robotics, and mobility, the region needs the complete ecosystem, and that begins with education and a true center for mobility training in Detroit proper, he says.
Thomas is helping to spearhead a push for an Institute for Mobility and Artificial Intelligence in the city of Detroit. And while there are no plans for a groundbreaking anytime soon, it's an idea that is gaining momentum. It's part of what Thomas calls a necessity for a "virtuous cycle" in Detroit, where people can be trained here, work here, launch companies here, and raise their families here.
"If we're going to compete in the future of manufacturing, in the future of automotive, in the future of mobility we also need to focus on building the ecosystem," Thomas says. "We need to have that whole value chain, that whole food chain here in Detroit if we're going to compete globally. I believe we can and will. That type of institute, in my opinion, is exactly the type we need."
Too many qualified people have left, and a partnership between the academic and private sector is needed in order to make Detroit itself the center of a new ecosystem. As an example, Thomas discusses a mobility software company Fontinalis invested in called nuTonomy
, an MIT spinout that last year was sold to Aptiv
, Delphi's mobility division. The company's founder, Karl Iagnemma, was originally from Michigan. Yet he needed to go to Boston to develop his technology. "We've got to have the ability to make sure [native Michiganders] can achieve their dreams here at home," Thomas says.
Many of the mobility startups he's invested in on the East Coast and West Coast have Michigan connections. The founders were born here, went to school here, but they're not building their companies and raising their families here. Thomas said he needed to go to San Francisco first to develop the skills he needed before returning to Detroit.
"What we need to do is make sure that there is a pathway for individuals who are leading the way when it comes to innovation in these sectors to come here early on in their careers or in their lives and stay here."
For a brief time, a half-finished jail site along Gratiot near Greektown was under consideration, but that will likely be used by Dan Gilbert for major league soccer. Thomas believes that while the region can be involved, and partnerships with local universities such as Lawrence Tech, Wayne State, and CCS should be included, it all needs to be focused on Detroit proper. "I'm a huge believer in the necessity of actually making Detroit the center of that ecosystem. And by Detroit, I mean the city of Detroit."
Right now, he says, many sidebar discussions are going on with possible stakeholders and people who believe strongly in the mission. "I think that there's a concrete realization that this is something that we should and need to do." Thomas says he'll be at the Mackinac Policy Conference
at the end of May, pushing the idea.
To him, just planning a mobility training center is bringing together a younger generation of Detroit leaders, those in their 30s and 40s.
"Detroit's past and present have positioned it perfectly to drive the future of mobility," Thomas says."What happens next is a matter of will, and what I hope very much is that we, as a community, have the will to come together and say that this is something that's important to us."