The capital of the Am›erican car industry is now attracting investors, entrepreneurs, and young professionals with the promise of cheap real estate and the opportunity to (re)build something great. Forbes ranked Detroit the fourth fastest-growing city for tech jobs in 2015. Detroit Venture Partners is investing in the movement and creating an ecosystem of entrepreneurship in the Motor City. The venture capital firm wants to make Detroit a hub for tech startups.
According to Seema Chennamsetty, a senior associate with Detroit Venture Partners who focuses on vetting new investment, there are plenty of reasons to invest in Detroit, which emerged from bankruptcy at the end of 2014. Beyond great colleges, government cooperation, and an abundance of training organizations, the cost of doing business in Detroit — from salaries to real estate — is far less than say, Silicon Valley. Additionally, Chennamsetty says, people are rooting for the city, which fosters collaboration and community among entrepreneurs. “There’s this energy and buzz. A lot of people are taking pride in actively making the city better,” she says. “There’s a lot going on, and I think in the next five to 10 years, Detroit will be a great city.”
The numbers seem to back up the buzz. In 2014, $106.1 million in venture capital funding was invested in 18 Detroit companies, according to a MoneyTree Report by Thomson Reuters. And for the first time ever, Detroit saw more VC activity than Ann Arbor ($67.2 million in 21 deals). According to the Michigan Venture Capital Association’s annual research report (PDF), the number of Detroit-based companies receiving venture capital investment for the first time has gone from three in 2011 to eight in 2014, with a total of 33 active venture-backed companies. Of the startup companies that have received VC funding, 54 percent have been in the information technology sector.
Detroit Venture Partners has $55 million under management, of which more than $30 million has been committed to portfolio companies. The VC firm backs seed and early stage startups with a focus on Detroit-based companies. It currently has 15 active companies in its portfolio. Chennamsetty says Detroit Venture Partners invested about $5 million in existing portfolio companies in 2015, including Are You a Human, Marxent, Ginkotree, and Quikly, as well as an undisclosed amount of funding to its newest portfolio company, Campless. DVP invested about $12 million in 2014. Chennamsetty noted the fund is putting in less money now that it is in its fifth year of the lifecycle.
“When we started five years ago, there wasn’t a lot of capital out here,” Chennamsetty says. “There wasn’t a way for experienced entrepreneurs to stay here and build a company, so many left for the coasts, San Francisco, New York, Chicago. A lot of talent was leaving Michigan, specifically Detroit. So Detroit Venture Partners was brought about as another part of Dan Gilbert’s initiative to revitalize the city, help create jobs, and make Detroit a hub for technology startups.”
Gilbert co-founded Detroit Venture Partners with Josh Linkner and Brian Hermelin in 2010. Quicken Loans founder Gilbert has invested more than a billion of his own money into Detroit’s revitalization. In 2010, Gilbert moved Quicken Loans offices downtown and has purchased more than 60 properties in the area. He’s also persuaded some heavy hitters to follow, including Microsoft and Twitter. In September 2015, Amazon announced it will expand its presence in downtown Detroit. Amazon Marketplace vice president Peter Faricy said, “If we can get another 100 engineers, it’ll become a self-sustaining technology hub.” Auto supplier Lear Corp. recently bought a building owned and renovated by Gilbert’s real estate arm.
While the goal of any venture fund is to make money on investments,Detroit Venture Partners is also looking at the bigger picture. “We’re trying to build a venture capital ecosystem, whether that’s getting other accelerators down here, or getting other VCs to start investing. Our goal is to keep talent in Michigan,” Chennamsetty says. “While doing so, we do a lot for the community. We pride ourselves on VC without ego, so essentially digging deep with entrepreneurs, whether they’re ours or not, making connections for them, helping the businesses in whatever capacity we can. So we’re a VC but we have a community-focused edge as well.” —Jennifer Chung Klam
This story has been updated with further information from Michigan Venture Capital Association.
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