What’s in the Works at Michigan Central

A closer look at the companies taking up shop at the newly-renovated site.
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Photograph by Brian Ferry, courtesy of Michigan Central

In April, the tech incubator Newlab opened its Detroit headquarters in the rehabilitated Book Depository building in the Michigan Central innovation district. Newlab hosts startups and small established companies that pay a monthly fee for space and the use of workshops. Here, we introduce a selection of those ventures.

Energy storage safety products international

During his 20 years as a member of the Detroit Fire Department, Ron Butler belonged to one of the busiest battalions in the world.“Iran on the east side of Detroit,” Butler says. “We did a lot of aggressive firefighting. What I learned, I apply to my business. If we don’t do our jobs right, people die.”

Today, as chief executive officer of Energy Storage Safety Products International — which receives funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation — Butler leads development of new means of suppressing battery fires. ESSPI has five employees, 15 contract workers, one patented suppression system, and another pending.

Butler jumped at the chance to take an office under the Newlab umbrella in The Book Depository.

“There’s nothing like it,” he says, saving special praise for the 3D printing facility and electronics lab.

ESSPI is developing a suite of robust products “based on safe transport and storage of batteries,” he says. This includes small cases for moving military batteries, larger ones for EV batteries, and even a trailer system. The general idea is to monitor for battery failure, detect even the “tiniest amount of off-gassing from a battery,” and communicate developments to concerned parties.

Canopy

Canopy started as an internal project within Ford Motor Co. to solve problems related to theft of tools and cargo from vehicles. It was spun off in 2022 as a separate venture. Security specialist ADT Inc. also backs the company, which has 80 employees split between London and Detroit.

Preparing for beta testing one recent afternoon, Chief Product Officer Sam Harris said Canopy’s aftermarket product with an artificial intelligence-powered camera system and smartphone app is for all trucks (and soon, for vans).

In May, Canopy shot a commercial at Ford’s original Piquette Avenue plant, completing a full circle in the story of mobility.

“It’s been a kind of crazy journey,” Harris says.

Grounded RVs

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sam Shapiro was nomadic, living and working in the 20-year-old Chevrolet cargo van he had converted to a camper. The experience led him to start Grounded RVs, an enterprise whose staff of fewer than 10 devote themselves to creating battery-electric-powered campers.

“We ended up in Detroit basically because we got invited to participate in this Michigan Central Newlab space,” he says. “It’s a totally invaluable program for us as an early-stage startup because the amount of resources we get access to for a very tiny fee, relatively, is unmatched.”

The Grounded G1 camper van is based on a Ford E-Transit, but Shapiro says Grounded is “platform agnostic” and that details of the G2, on a different platform, will be announced by summer’s end.

Electreon

A 10-year-old Israeli company, Electreon leads the creation of roadway corridors that offer inductive charging to EVs while they’re stopped or on the go.

In 2022, the Michigan Department of Transportation announced a five-year agreement with Electreon to create the nation’s first wireless electric road system over a mile-long stretch in Corktown, mostly along Michigan Avenue. There will also be a short stretch of ERS on 14th Street alongside The Book Depository with charging pads for buses and delivery trucks.

Charging is accomplished as coils under the road’s pavement transmit to receiver coils in the vehicles. Stefan Tongur, vice president of business development at Electreon, speaks of “regional corridors” that would reduce the need for oversize onboard batteries and reward “repetitive movement” by giving frequent charges to passing vehicles throughout the day.

When Hour Detroit spoke to MDOT in late July, officials expected to begin the 14th Street ERS segment in August or September, and the Michigan Avenue stretch sometime in 2024.

Cavnue

“What we’re looking to do is simplify the road ahead to the next generation of vehicles,” says Mark de la Vergne, vice president at Cavnue, a 3-year-old startup with offices in Palo Alto, California, and Washington, D.C., and about 20 employees at The Book Depository.

Connectivity and autonomy promise to increase safety and reduce congestion, and Cavnue is master developer for the nation’s first planned connected and autonomous vehicle corridor, a 40-mile stretch of I-94 between Detroit and Ann Arbor. De la Vergne draws a comparison to the conversion 100 years ago of wagon roads to paved routes for bicycles and cars.

“Now, vehicles are essentially becoming computers on wheels,” he says. Cavnue is working closely with the Michigan Department ofTransportation to make accommodations for autonomous vehicles. “Our goal is to get a few miles built as a pilot in the next year or so, then hope for the first segment of 10 to 20 miles in the middle part of the decade.”

Pluck.eco

“I kind of think they made the building for me,” says Chening Duker, founder of Pluck.eco, a delivery service working with seven urban farms.

He often starts his day at 6 a.m. ensuring that deliveries go out. Next, he heads to Newlab in The Book Depository, where he now tinkers on variations of the Biliti Electric Taskman, a battery-powered three-wheeler made in India.“They have a really sweet vehicle. It reduces the per-unit cost of distributing from farms.”

He’s working on a folding rear panel that could serve as a coffee or samples bar for socializing with customers at pop-ups.

“We’re coming up with something that looks pretty different from what you would expect. There’s no way I could justify setting up a woodshop to test out this pilot without the benefit of Newlab. The cool thing is, we have all the resources to make a solution that is relevant to the farms we’re working with.”


This story is from the September 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.