The managing director of Techstars Detroit has been an integral player in growing the city’s tech startup scene.
By Andy Reid
Photography by Quinn Banks
Ted Serbinski still has the email saved in his inbox, more than eight years later. It was a quick message — sent on a whim — but the contents of it changed his life forever.
“Silicon Valley guy looking to move to Michigan,” Serbinski wrote in the subject field on June 3, 2011.
A few months before sending the message, Serbinski and his wife, Katie, had begun talking about moving away from San Francisco, where they had moved after Serbinski graduated from Cornell University. Serbinski had found success in the four years he spent in the mecca of tech business, founding a network of parenting blogs that was acquired by Lifetime in 2008 and becoming one of the most respected developers on the open-source content management framework Drupal.
“I was open to going somewhere else,” Serbinski says. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was completely burned out from work and really needed a new change of scenery.”
He started to look at cities with burgeoning tech startup communities, where he could draw on his Silicon Valley experience to make an impact. The Cornell graduate considered Boston, Chicago, New York and others.
Katie had a different idea. The two of them knew that, once they left San Francisco, they wanted to have children. And Katie, who grew up in Dearborn and still has family in the area, brought up Detroit to raise a family.
“When my wife had said something about going to Detroit, I laughed and said, ‘No. Why would I go to Detroit to get into venture and technology?’ ” Serbinski says.
It was a fair question in 2011. But, a few months later, when they still hadn’t settled on a new location, Serbinski circled back to his wife’s idea.
“I thought, ‘Well, let me make sure there’s absolutely nothing there that is interesting to me,’ and I Googled ‘Detroit startups,’ ” he says.
As Serbinski expected, there wasn’t much of a market for tech startups in the city at the time. But his search did present something that piqued his interest. Dan Gilbert, who had relocated the Quicken Loans headquarters downtown just a year prior, had announced he was launching Detroit Venture Partners to invest in tech around the city.
The more Serbinski read about Gilbert’s endeavor, the more excited he became. He started to think, “This is exactly what I want to do.”
So he sent that cold email to Detroit Venture Partners.
“I know you get a lot of emails, but do you have 15 minutes to talk about entrepreneurship in Detroit?” he asked. “I could be part of the Detroit renaissance. Silicon Valley is really starting to fragment itself. Tech talent is being globally distributed, and we could start something in Detroit.”
It worked. He joined Detroit Venture Partners, a $55 million venture capital fund, and started work immediately.
Serbinski, who grew up in a military family and was used to moving around, committed to giving Detroit a chance — but knew he could make another move if he had to.
“At the time, the majority of my meetings were in Ann Arbor or Cincinnati or Chicago or Cleveland,” he says. “There wasn’t really much tech stuff happening in the city, but we happened to be in the region, downtown at the Compuware Building. There was some activity, but ‘some’ is, relative to other places, ‘zero.’ ”
But attention was starting to come to the city. Gilbert’s venture capital firm was bringing work to Detroit, and Techstars took notice.
Techstars, according to Serbinski, is the longest-running mobility startup accelerator program in the world. When Techstars assesses a new market, they look for three major components: a growing entrepreneurial community; respected local universities that could be sources of talent; and strong industry that could provide mentorship and support.
University of Michigan is one of the most respected hubs for startup talent in Michigan, and Detroit is the epicenter of the automotive industry, which is constantly looking to bolster its tech initiatives. Techstars was sold. In 2014, Techtars Detroit opened its doors, with Serbinski, now 37, and his partner, Jake Cohen, at the helm.
Since then, they have invested in 54 startups — 51 of which were started elsewhere — and brought them all to Detroit. Techstars Detroit invests $120,000 in each of these companies, and they are now approaching $500 million in total valuation, Serbinski says. SPLT, a ride-share service competing with Uber and Lyft, was acquired by Bosch. Another company, Classics&Exotics, was acquired by Hagerty in Traverse City.
One of their biggest success stories is Cargo, in which Serbinski invested in 2016. The product is a small vending machine that can be placed in an Uber or Lyft car to sell snacks and phone chargers. Since Techstars brought the New York company to Detroit, it has exploded. Cargo raised more than $20 million in a new round of funding, led by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and they announced a huge partnership with Uber last year.
“This is one that this program invested in first,” Serbinski says. “Who knows what would have happened if this program didn’t exist? But this program made all the right connections for them, and really enabled a rocket ship to come out of here.”
DeepHow is an AI-powered learning platform, which helps workers in manufacturing, service and repair jobs with interactive how-to videos. It was founded by a group of former Siemens employees, including Sam Zheng, and was part of the Techstars Detroit team in 2018.
The DeepHow team came from New Jersey to Detroit to work with Techstars. Zheng says they were so inspired by the ingenuity and drive they found in Detroit, they’re going to set up shop here for the long haul. They already have a solid base of customers in the city and will run operations from Detroit.
“Ted is really awesome,” Zheng says. “He is instrumental to the success of Techstars Detroit. He really designed the program well.”
Serbinski had no idea what was in store for him when he came to Detroit. Now, he and Katie live in Beverly Hills with their four small children. And they take pride in the fact that they’re bringing real business to Detroit — and helping build the city’s future.
“I have uncovered my own passion for the city and a greater mission,” Serbinski says. “I am on a mission to change entrepreneurs’ perception of doing business with Detroit. … Detroit used to show the world how to move, and now the world is showing Detroit how to move. I want to really double down on that pattern of startups coming to Detroit to do business.”