Tech startups pair with Mcity offering independent work study

Monday, October 9, 2017 - 5:36pm

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Five startups focused on autonomous vehicle technology will be partnering with Mcity to accelerate their progress in the race for driverless cars. TechLab, an initiative from the University of Michigan College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship, allows students to register for an independent study course and work with one of the “companies in residence.”

The Center’s executive director, Jonathan Fay, laid out the criteria for picking the five companies.

“We tried to get a cross section of different companies from across the autonomous ecosystem,” Fay said. “So we didn’t want all the companies doing similar type of work. Tome for example, we thought it was really important to have a company that was actually close to home so a Detroit, Southeast Michigan company. In addition, we wanted to pick companies where we could identify a project that matched the interest of our students.”

TechLab offers students an alternative to traditional co-op programs or internships because it is an independent study class students receive credit for. Fay said though different, TechLab is no less enterprising.

“We’ve seen students get paid internships over the summer and students likely getting hired by these companies,” he added.

Mcity and TechLab function as a partnership, where Mcity allows TechLab companies to use its facilities like the state-of-the-art test track.

Mcity is one of the few places in the world where companies like Ford, General Motors and small startups can test autonomous car technology. The University has gained national attention to the project. Most recently, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, unveiled new guidelines for the testing site.

The Center’s marketing specialist, Jane Sugiyama, explained the scope of the student’s work at TechLab.

“The students are required to attend lecture that’s two hours once a week,” Sugiyama said. “In the first couple weeks they’re learning project management, business models, ecosystem mapping and basically all the tools that you would need to help launch a startup and create a valuable value proposition. Then later we bring in some guest speakers.”

Sugiyama detailed the experience and work that students are doing with Tome, the Detroit-based company.

“They’re going to be doing B-to-V testing which is bicycle-to-vehicle testing so the students will actually be doing the bicycle-to-vehicle detection out at Mcity on the test track,” she said. “The students are really engrained within the companies and treated just like a team member.”

The companies also test software and work on data sets that are less track-intensive, as track time at Mcity’s facility can be exclusive and expensive.

Though the innovations are important and applicable, Fay prioritizes the talent pipeline that is made up of TechLab’s students.

“(Google and Ford) could have great autonomous vehicles on the road, but what I really want is that machine learning company that supplies both of them to be here in Michigan,” Fay said.

Engineering junior Matt Jankowski spoke to the benefits and drawbacks of doing independent study work as opposed to a traditional co-op. He expressed his desire to work for mobility startups in the future.

“I think being in a co-op is still more of a real workplace experience because it shows you what working full time is like,” Jankowski said. “A work-study course doesn’t allow for that.”