Startup Spotlight Podcast: Kelly Kang, Techstars Detroit

This post is part of the Driven Startup Ecosystem Spotlight series.
This episode of Driven’s Startup Spotlight features Kelly Kang, Program Manager at Techstars Detroit, which invests in startups that are building technologies and business models that affect how people and goods move across all types of transportation.

Driven - Startup Spotlight: Kelly Kang, Techstars Detroit

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Theme: 00:06 Opening

Devon: 00:06 Hello and welcome to the startup spotlight podcast on Driven, the source for news and insight into advancing the future of next generation mobility. I am Devon O'Reilly, director of Entrepreneurship for the Detroit Regional Chamber. And with me today is Kelly Kang, program manager at Techstars Detroit. Welcome Kelly. Thanks so much for having me. I'm so let's get right into it. Techstars is a program that a lot of people in the entrepreneurial community may be familiar with, but for those, maybe not. Give us a little bit of a background on the Tech Stars program and then specifically kind of the Detroit, iteration here.

Kelly: 00:41 So Techstars is the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. We started in 2006 in Boulder, Colorado. And so it was just basically the founders are like, okay, if we give smart people some capital and access to mentors, what can come of that? And that has quickly turned into close to 50 accelerator programs all over the world. And so Techstars Detroit is specifically mobility focused and most of the programs do have a vertical focus. Some of them do not. So Boston, Seattle, Austin, New York. And so our program here, this is our fifth year running meet me 44 investments so far and we're kicking off and just a few days here. Very excited.

Devon: 01:25 Great. So you know, you talked about other specialized programs in other cities. Why, and maybe obvious, but talk about why Detroit for a mobility focus.

Kelly: 01:36 Yeah, that's a great question. I think what's been so telling is that we interviewed hundreds of companies of this year too, for those 10 slots. And every time we ask them, you know, why you're interested in this program, they instantly recognize, you know, Detroit is the place I have to come to build a mobility startup. And so when we started this program five years ago, it was announced the same day that Detroit came out of bankruptcy. And so there's always been this alignment with Detroit's comeback as a motor city and what we're doing as a program. And so we have all of our customers here, access to talent, access to capital. And so I think that startups have recognized this and come here and just knowing we have to build their company here.

Devon: 02:20 You said it's, it's an interesting point that you launched a non-bankruptcy initially. Do you find that your overall perception of Detroit has kind of made people more interested in what's going on with Techstars in Detroit?

Kelly: 02:39 It’s kind of happening together and so I think that I'd love to know how people have answered though. Like why Detroit question over the past five to 10 years. I'd love to kind of like see like a historical analysis of that because I hope soon we can stop asking that question. Cause you know, New York, no one ever asked him why New York City. And so I think, I hope the same for Detroit. And so I think that as Detroit has come back in the way people have also kind of pinpointed Techstars Detroit as their program for building a mobility start up.

Devon: 03:12 So this is your fifth year of the program cohort this year. So looking back on that are there any kind of alumni or graduates, who are from Techstars Detroit program doing some big things or anybody that you want to call out and say, hey, you know, this company started with Tech Stars.

Kelly: 03:34 Yeah, for sure. So, Cargo, they raised $22 million from Peter teals fund, wise raise 7 million from Google's AI Fund. Asserta one of our female founding companies they raised from Microsofts and 12 fund and most recently humanizing autonomy, which was from last summer's class, they raised 5 million, to continue to make a ton. And this sphere got smarter around pedestrian behavior. So it's just been really exciting to see these companies that came in as two to three people with an idea of launching TVs. Companies that employ dozens of people have raised a ton of capital, I think are just continuing to change what mobility looks like for the future.

Devon: 04:14 Yeah. And she was plug some of those companies you mentioned, humanizing autonomy and others have made their way to the planet landing zone. Yes. They have, which is, which is a big part of what we do at, at the chamber in Atlanta. Yeah. We love planting them as partners. Yeah. It's been, it's been great to work with those Techstars companies coming out of that. So, so you just announced a, your new cohort for 2019 at tech crunch, talk a little bit about this year's class and what you're excited about.

Kelly: 04:44 Yeah, so I mean this class has been a year in the making. Essentially. We started talking to companies essentially after we selected last years. And so, Ted and myself, Ted, the managing director of this program, we've spoken to hundreds of companies over the past year. And so, these 10 companies we've invested in and are coming to the city, we're super excited because they truly are diverse, so diverse in gender. almost 50% of them have a female founder on their founding teams, which is unprecedented for this program. And I think pretty rare for accelerator programs, diverse in where they're coming from. So, we have six countries represented in this class, as well as just business models. So we have pretty good mix of consumer enterprise. And I think that the reason, and part of the reasons we chose these companies is because I think they've done a lot in terms of thinking about what the future of mobility looks like. Not just, you know, not only one to two years out, but really five, 10, 20 years from now. And so, we have a good mix of companies in Otto, thinking about last mile, the revenue problem. And so just really excited to be bringing them to the city for 13 weeks.

Devon: 05:56 Yeah, I had one. I think they are excited to

Devon: 05:58 be, to be coming here. So, you've talked about you're excited about, and how interesting this year's class is going to be and how diverse. Talk about what you look for in a, an ideal Techstars candidate. When you talk about first kind of what do you look at as far as defining mobility? What counts when, what was defines mobility company and then what are those specific attributes of that company that really stand out when you're looking at potential applicants? Yeah, so we rebranded intentionally. We announced that at the auto show from Techstars mobility to Techstars, Detroit. We're still very much mobility focused. And I think the reason we wanted to rebrand and kind of shift that is because we think that mobility is incredibly broad. And so it's anything that moves people, goods or services are really the infrastructure that supports that.

Kelly: 06:48 And so of course when the companies that apply come to us at first we have to screen for that stage, but we keep it pretty open. And I think the first thing we look for, and this is something that Techstars really values is the team. And so we think that a strong team can build anything, even if their idea is horrible when they first come. We don't think that the inverse is true at all. And so, we will spend a ton of time just talking to these teams over and over again. Understanding, do you know each other? Do you know how to give each other hard feedback. So when you hear that startups fail most of the time over more than half the time because the founders couldn't get along. That's something we screened for really heavily. And so team, it's definitely vertical focus. And then we also enlist the help of our partners a lot.

Kelly: 07:36 So Ford, Honda, Lear, our great insurance partners and of course Planet M for just that subject matter expertise. So these companies that are coming with their idea, their ideas, while it's not the most important thing is this the direction that our partners are thinking about in terms of innovation. And they can give us a quick check just in terms of this will work, this won't work. Someone did this 10 years ago, this will never work. And so we always take that, really seriously as we consider which companies we invest in. But it really comes down to team.

Devon: 08:08 Hmm. So just to, and hypothetical, so a team that one or more people may not have direct experience in the mobility sector. Is that less important, like direct experience in that sector versus what type of, versus having to start it before or just a specific, intellectual property or knowledge, I guess, how does that work as far as this is text or is it focuses on mobility? How important or how much of a factor is it that you have worked in the mobility sector? Yeah, good question. I think,

Kelly: 08:42 So when we assess these teams, have you built something before? Because Techstars just generally is investing in technology startups that can scale. We look for teams or a CEO or CTO that has built something that was highly scalable because of their tech. Obviously I think the expertise is important, especially if you want to know how to sell into your customers, talk to them. But I don't think it's critical or key. I think you have to understand your space and understand the problem you're solving, but it's not so much specific mobility experience.

Devon: 09:17 So, switching gears a little bit I want to talk about kind of yourself and your background. So, before, before tech stars, you know, what were, what were you up to? How'd you get here?

Kelly: 09:27 Yeah, so I've been with Techstars for about a year now. I joined a week, five of a 13 week program last year, which is a wild ride. But before that so I moved to Detroit about four years ago and I came here for the venture for America Fellowship Program. So it's kind of like teach for America except placing recent graduates at emerging markets to have a pretty thriving startup ecosystem. And so I came here. I, the joke is that whenever I run into someone, they ask what new job I have. But you know, but that's, that's startup life as they say. So I was at Floyd and then I was at castle, which was a YC backed property management software company. And that wound down in the beginning of 2018. So if anyone ever wants to talk about that process of shutting out a company, hit me up. And then I was free. If you had a family foundation that was focused on social enterprise. And so I've spent a lot of time in the Detroit entrepreneurial ecosystem. I absolutely love living here. I was supposed to be here for two years and it's been for, I have no plans for leaving. Awesome.

Devon: 10:32 So I guess what are some of your favorite parts about kind of working, living experience,

Devon: 10:38 the city in Detroit? How much time do you,

Kelly: 10:42 just slowly, I mean, we could, we could, we can extend this podcast, but yeah. What are some of your, you were sitting here, it's summertime. Yeah, it's beautiful out. What do you, what are some of your favorite parts about, you know, this time of year in Detroit?

Kelly: 10:53 Yeah, I mean, some are in Detroit's the best. I think that when I visited Detroit initially, it was kind of when I was interviewing for companies, it was that initially at the bottom of my list. And then I visited Detroit once for weekend and everyone I met was so committed to the flourishing of the city. , I grew up in Los Angeles or New York, and I think that people there are very transient and pretty transactional and I don't, I think that Detroit the opposite of that. And I think that if you're looking to get connected with someone, there one or two degrees of separation away, and of course there are definitely barriers to entry for people. And so I think you have to be super mindful of that. But I think that's just generally people here want to move forward together. I think a lot of cities and ecosystems can say that, but I think Detroit really lives it in a way that's really inspiring. So I love that. In summer it's great here too, for sure. so, so how do you think that tech stars

Devon: 11:54 and its companies, its alumni include that in this is can play a continuing greater role in the growing mobility ecosystem?

Kelly: 12:03 Yeah, so I think, if we could just get all of them to stay after program would be a huge thing. And I think, you know, the fact that we started all of these conversations with companies where they said, I know I have to be in Detroit. I know I have to be there for access to customers, talent capital, if we can continue to grow all three of those things in this region, I think that is a really compelling case for companies to stick around to open regional markets. And so I think that's a huge piece of it. I think we're seeing more and more of our portfolio companies, just those 44 companies open up offices here. And so I run into them all the time and they're here for a pilot. They're here for, to meet a new potential customer.

Kelly: 12:46 And so I think the more we can get of that, the better. So I think there's a lot of interesting movement in that space, specifically around talent. I think around with the Detroit Mobility Lab, I'm super excited to see how that impacts, the future of talent in this ecosystem and being able to provide direct, hires for these companies that go through accelerator programs. Like Techstars. So, that's on the company am, but I think there's more we can do from the Techstars and to outside of the 13 weeks to make sure that we're doing all we can to keep them here and keep growing the ecosystem.

Devon: 13:24 Yeah. I feel like the companies that do stay here almost become evangelists to the rest of the startup world and the community to say, I stayed in a trade and here's why I stayed. just really quickly as we're wrapping up, what is in a nutshell, what does that pitch that you give to those startups when you're trying to keep them here? What do you, what do you, what do you hit him with as far as a pitch?

Kelly: 13:45 Yeah, I mean, I think as a program we say if you want access to some of the key decision makers around mobility, specifically around auto, you have to come here and you're going to build these relationships for 13 weeks, not only with them, but also with a network of investors. Subject matter experts in this area who will connect you to customers, investors, anything you need to have your business succeed. And I think if you come here, people are behind you, because it's not only your success but really the region, the city success. And so I think there's a ton of reason to stay here and I think that companies find it totally true and the people who stay behind the out, they become evangelists and they believe in it. So, here's two more of them sticking around and absolutely.

Devon: 14:37 So how can we follow a Techstars cohorts journey and stay up to date on what's going on with this class?

Kelly: 14:43 Definitely. So, shoot us an email, Detroit ad tech stars, Tech Stars with an and we will send out invitations for our Demo Day for future events that we hold at the lear innovation center. and follow Techstars just at Techstars if you want to see updated, interest in general news. All right, perfect.

Devon: 15:03 So thanks Kelly for joining us. And you can also find out more about Techstars, Detroit and the Detroit regions leadership and next generation mobility by visiting

Theme: 15:22 [inaudible]

Driven: 15:23 special thank you to we worked for it. Providing the studio to record this podcast, a platform dedicated to businesses of all sizes, providing community space and services to help you Frye. Learn more at [inaudible] dot co backslash podcast. The truck.

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