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Startup Synergy: Newlab Draws Tech Talent to Detroit

January 9, 2024

By John Gallagher

In Ford’s vision for its Michigan Central campus, the old book depository building adjacent to Detroit’s historic train station, now smartly renovated, will house dozens of startups inventing next-generation mobility technology.

Thanks to a dramatic remake of the 1920s-era building, the facility operated by New York-based Newlab today houses multiple startups working on advances in mobility tech, including electric vehicles, e-bikes, robotic mobility systems, and more.

It shows that recruiting tech-savvy talent to Detroit is doable with the right opportunities and support systems in place here.

Josh Sirefman headshot

“The vision is to create a truly world and market-beating ecosystem focused around the intersection of mobility and society. Part of it also is to create an extraordinary place that is a talent magnet.”

– Josh Sirefman, Chief Executive Officer, Ford’s Michigan Central

As Sam Shapiro, founder of Grounded, a producer of electric camper vans, said of the Newlab facility at Michigan Central, “We’ve had engineering candidates tell us this building is like a candy shop for an engineer because there’s millions of dollars of equipment and machinery and tools for us to use.”

That kind of endorsement is music to the ears of Josh Sirefman, chief executive officer of Ford’s Michigan Central, a 30-acre mobility innovation district centered on the historic train station.

“Oh, absolutely,” Sirefman said about Newlab. “But it’s not just about engineers. It’s about entrepreneurs, the kind of talent to work with entrepreneurs, the resources to surround them, the technical tools, but also a community that provides unexpected interactions, resources, and networking. So it’s all of the ingredients.”

From Startups to Skilled Training

Opened just last April, the Newlab building already houses about 50 startups plus supporting groups, about 350 people in all. And Sirefman said the building is still only at about 30 percent capacity, leaving plenty more room to grow.

Nor is it just startups that matter. The effort at the Michigan Central campus includes skills training for Detroiters in tech arts like maintenance of EV charging stations. Graduates will be able to land jobs in the field making a good income. That, too, is part of the holistic plan for Michigan Central.

The Intersection of Mobility and Society

“The vision is to create a truly world and market-beating ecosystem focused around the intersection of mobility and society,” Sirefman said. “Part of it also is to create an extraordinary place that is a talent magnet.”

Other entrepreneurs who came to Newlab in Detroit echo that.

“I just felt that would be a perfect fit where we have significant historic buildings where they’re aiming to make the equivalent of Silicon Valley just for hardware,” said Rasmus Noraas Bendvold, managing director of the U.S. operations of Norway-based wheel.me, which produces autonomous wheels. “We wanted to be part of it. It fits all the boxes with necessary space, woodshop, 3-D print shop, electrical shop and more. It’s a perfect place to be for a scale-up business like us.”

Like many startups at NewLab at Michigan Central, Shapiro’s Grounded had looked at other states as potential homes but focused on Detroit when they learned what Newlab was offering at the Michigan Central campus.

“At that point it was a no-brainer because of the resources and community that was here at Michigan Central,” he said.

Tenants Make the Best Recruiters

Sharing of resources and ideas is so critical that startups at Newlab become some of the best recruiters. Consider Justin Kosmides, CEO and co-founder of Vela Bikes, a Brazil-based e-bike producer that located here.

“We are looking at convincing more and more operators and brands to move here because we also benefit,” Kosmides said. “There are huge economies of scale that we need to be surrounded by. I’ve been on a mini campaign on my own to get as many other brands and producers here to pool resources together.”

And that, in fact, is what Ford’s vision for its Michigan Central campus is all about.

The December Detroiter tackles the intertwined population and talent crisis that threatens Michigan’s future prosperity and growth. View the latest edition.

Emerging Innovators Who Selected Detroit



Founded in Norway in 2013, wheel.me creates robotic mobility systems that automate material handling systems. Want to move heavy equipment just by telling it where to go? That’s wheel.me.

Newlab in Detroit provides this European import with a vibrant startup community where like-minded tech entrepreneurs can network. “We meet every day, either it’s for lunch or a beer after work,” said Rasmus Noraas Bendvold, Managing Director of the U.S. effort. “We talk about what’s going on, what is moving in the market. That sort of thing is much easier when you’re in a community such as this.”

Vela Bikes

Vela Bikes

Founded in Brazil, e-bike maker Vela came to Detroit from Newlab’s New York site to find the manufacturing capacity it needed to scale production in the fast growing segment of electrified bicycles.

“Newlab (in New York) is an incredible place to prototype and to develop the first couple of units, but the thing that’s always held back in New York is the ability to scale up,” said Justin Kosmides, Co-Founder of Vela. “Detroit is the perfect market to make that next step in a very cost effective, efficient way compared to pretty much any other market in the country.”



Grounded, producer of electric camper vans for the RV market, starts with a basic Ford or GM platform and then designs the interior for gas-free outdoor recreation. Chief Executive Officer Sam Shapiro, a veteran of Space X, is an outdoors guy who grew tired of having gas-guzzling RVs emit tons of carbon dioxide at campsites he visited. That motivated him to launch his company in 2022. Grounded’s G1 camper van comes with solar, a modular interior, and an integrated electronics and proprietary software.