Innovative mobility solutions are about giving people back their most precious commodity – time, says Chris Thomas, president and cofounder of Detroit Mobility Lab.
Thomas and cofounder Jessica Robinson are determined to make Detroit a leading mobility center – as soon as first quarter 2020. Together, they've closely studied the mobility ecosystems in Berlin, Munich and Singapore, hoping to take the lessons those cities have learned and develop an equivalent in North America. The lab will function as a shared workspace and innovation center – housing investors, original equipment manufacturers, Tier One suppliers, entrepreneurs and sovereign states.
This is not Thomas' first foray in mobility. Most recently, Thomas co-founded Fontinalis Partners, a venture capital firm for next-generation mobility. Fontinalis Partners is an investor in FreightWaves. Prior to this, he served as a Communications Officer in the U.S. Army and an investment banker in New York and San Francisco.
Detroit Mobility Lab pushes outside its workspace and into the academic world. Thomas and Robinson have partnered with Wayne State University to create the Center for Advanced Mobility – the first institutional learning space for holistic studies in mobility. Students can pursue masters' level degrees and certificates for studies in robotics, electrification and computer science.
"We're also thinking about jobs for aging truck drivers," Thomas said in an interview with FreightWaves. As truckers retire or want to pursue less-physically demanding careers, Thomas hopes to create three to nine-month certification programs through the Center for Advanced Mobility.
Brian Yormak, founding partner at Story Ventures, a venture capital firm, interviewed Thomas on Tuesday at FreightWaves LIVE Chicago.
"When we talk about mobility, we're talking about the movement of goods, people and the provisioning of services," said Thomas. "We're thinking about the movement of all those things on land, air and sea."
With an audience full of freight-tech entrepreneurs who operate in an industry often built on legacy, Yormak asked Thomas to give them advice and caution for potential bottlenecks.
"There's a lot of trepidation from C-suites in moving away from known systems and things that don't come naturally," Thomas explained. "Academia is not known for being very fast. Find individuals in your company who have natural entrepreneurial capacity. Beware of those people who take your time, bleed you dry and expect free labor. Invest in companies that are local and ecosystems that are self-fulfilling."
Automated labor is a common cause for trepidation in the mobility space, so considering how to help people transition is important.
"Freightwaves is a great example of tenacious entrepreneurship," Thomas added.
Thomas believes that over the next two to three years, the Detroit Mobility Lab will mark Detroit as North America's mobility city, encompassing all nodes. But are people positioned properly for what's to come, Yorkmak asked. Technology will enable a level of efficiency, but it's a multi-decade problem.
"[Detroit Mobility Lab] is a multigenerational opportunity," Thomas stated.
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