Prepping the runway for Israeli mobility startups in southeast Michigan


This feature is courtesy of Driven, the story of how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.

PlanetM and the Israel Innovation Authority want to collaborate some of Israel’s one-of-a-kind startup culture to Michigan. According to the 2018 Global Startup Ecosystem Report, Tel Aviv has the highest number of startups per capita in the world and the highest GDP investment in research and development.

“It can be overload sometimes because everyone’s got that ‘startup, startup, startup’ [mentality],” Seun Phillips, director of PlanetM said. “Sooner or later, it’s just like, Man we’ve got all these startups, and where are the workers?”

That’s perhaps an unintentional side effect of having a culture that’s so driven by entrepreneurship and starting over time and again. Thanks to the country’s admirable support for startups at a federal level with tax credits and easy access to a mature investor community, tech companies (like Waze, now owned by Google) have thrived.

He’s been working for around a year on the Israel Michigan Autonomous Technologies Collaboration (IMATC) grant program. Rather than providing angel investments to projects that may never enter the manufacturing phase, IMATC is laser-focused on helping fund deployable technology — not vaporware.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, I have an idea,’” Phillips explained. “It’s, ‘This has been proven, I just need a testing facility to validate what I know.”

Announced in January, IMATC is a partnership between the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Israeli Innovation Authority (IIA) to split the cost for mobility startups that want to test at places like MCity in Ann Arbor and the American Mobility Center in Ypsilanti.

Whether the technology involves infrastructure or something else that goes on a vehicle if it’s a product with a clear path to the real world that’s what Phillips is most interested in because the MEDC provides funding for tangible deployments.

So far, he’s gotten “about five” emails from interested Israeli startups. Just expressing a desire for the funding isn’t enough, though. Phillips said that it’s on the IMATC to educate startups and that there’s still some fine-tuning involved before the automated sign-up process for applications goes live either in late March or early April.

Currently, the application process is as such: A startup will pitch an idea involving connected technology, and from there, Phillips’ team vets the application, making sure the team is a good investment. Then the MEDC reaches out to the IIA and if both bodies agree, the team receives a grant. The team comes here, does its testing and the MEDC arranges meetings between the startup and local firms.

“We are actively recruiting innovative companies from Israel that are in advance stage of R&D and are committed to the emerging technology areas of mobility,” said Jonathan Cohen of the Israel Innovation Authority said in a press release. “This co-grant funding opportunity will allow them a world-class testing experience in order to get cutting edge concepts to the US market faster.”

Phillips’ goal is figuring out ways that Michigan can accelerate the innovation that’s already happening. “How do we get more Techstars and accelerators to really spur the type of innovation that we would like to see in the region?” he asked. “Part of that is providing those support systems and funding for them to succeed.”

One way is reducing the cost barrier for testing so startups can use the funds earmarked for validation in other ways instead. “Let’s do some gap funding so they can test and not feel restricted by the amount of funds and how much they can test,” Phillips said.

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