Can This Fund Make Detroit the Capital of Tech for Good?

Can This Fund Make Detroit the Capital of Tech for Good?
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Why you should care

Because sometimes it’s the good guys that need a leg up. 

OZY and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have partnered to bring you an inside look at how entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative methods to help the communities around them. Enjoy the rest of our special series here.

Ride-share apps have been battered with a Category 5 storm of bad publicity lately. It’s perhaps doubly refreshing, then, to consider Detroit’s SPLT. Instead of offering mere convenience, the startup looks to solve problems in local communities by, for example, pooling colleagues rather than strangers to cut down on carbon-heavy commutes. Last year, in partnership with one of the major, national ride-sharing apps, SPLT unveiled a pilot scheme to provide elderly patients with rides to nonemergency medical appointments. The idea was to help out what the company called “an underserved demographic.”

They haven’t just been passionate and dedicated to their ideas — they’ve also had a social mission.

Stacey Frankovich, Macomb Innovation Fund

SPLT is just one startup to receive a boost from the Macomb Innovation Fund, a regional initiative to nurture early-stage, Detroit-area enterprises — many of which, it turns out, are choosing to center on community-focused inventions. According to Stacey Frankovich, director of the Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Michigan’s Macomb Community College, a partner in the program, if one trend has emerged from applicants, it’s this: “They haven’t just been passionate and dedicated to their ideas — they’ve also had a social mission.”

The fund is a collaboration between Macomb Community College and JPMorgan Chase & Co. So far:

The Macomb Innovation Fund has awarded $1.6 million to 29 startup companies based in and around Detroit.

“The success of Detroit-area entrepreneurs is vital to the city’s recovery,” notes Chauncy Lennon, head of Workforce Initiatives at JPMorgan Chase. He says the company’s decision to pump $1 million into the project owes to an awareness that these businesses aren’t only creating jobs “but [also] serving their communities and powering the regional economy.”

Startup ideas to get the thumbs-up so far include CityInsight, a web and mobile app that shows residents their water usage in real time. The tool allows Detroiters to pay their utility bills with a tap of the app and to receive immediate customer service via real-time chat. (Detroit’s debt crisis led to mass water shut-offs in 2014.) “They’ve been working very closely with the Detroit mayor’s office to get the platform moving,” Frankovich notes, “and it’s gained interest from national and global partners.”

Frankovich also points to Recovery Park, an urban farming enterprise that not only repurposes vacant land to grow sustainable food for local restaurants but also commits to hiring people who face barriers to entering the workforce. “They’re looking at hiring individuals who may have disabilities or special needs, or who are coming out of the prison system, so again there’s that consciousness about helping others,” Frankovich says. Both CityInsight and Recovery Park were awarded a $25,000 cash injection by the fund.

But what about job creation? For now, these brand-new companies don’t have much room on the payroll. Still, according to Frankovich, they do use local contract workers: “They’re tapping into local talent for their prototyping, their legal, management and marketing.” As a condition of receiving funding, they’re also required to remain in the region for six years.

Perhaps an even bigger boon to the economy, though, is that funded enterprises must provide internships to Macomb Community College students. That doesn’t mean extra bodies for the coffee run: Given the “all hands on deck” approach typical of startups, students have found themselves doing everything from producing videos to building automation technology. According to James Jacobs, past president of Macomb Community College, this gives young people a chance to “interact with the emerging economic drivers of our community.”

With that in mind, while the project funds a finite number of local businesses, the ideas, skills and inspiration it fosters for Detroit’s future could be limitless.

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