A promising path forward for Detroit emerges

Jessica Thompson

When Chris Thomas worked as an intern at Ford Motor Co. in the depths of the Great Recession, he finagled his way into a meeting with Bill Ford Jr. and asked the company chairman to put him on the most interesting project possible.

Thomas spent his summer analyzing transportation trends in cities with more than 10 million residents. He quickly parlayed that research into a role crafting business plans for potential transportation startups, long before “mobility” became an industry buzzword.

Today, Thomas, who is based in Detroit, is a partner at Assembly Ventures, the venture capital firm focused on global transportation investments that he co-founded in 2020. He was a guest on the Oct. 2 episode of “Shift: A Podcast About Mobility” with Staff Reporter Pete Bigelow. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

Q: The Detroit auto show was underwhelming. How can the organizers recapture the magic? Could it be combined with the Battery Show in Novi, Mich.?

A: We need to put these shows together, not because it would be more exciting, but because it makes sense. The future of mobility is not just the automobile itself, but the powertrain, the differentiated composites, and all different types of companies and startups are going to be a part of that. That’s exactly what we have to bring together for a dynamic, thoughtful engagement and event.

What did you see a decade ago or longer that convinced you Detroit could become a hub for the mobility industry?

One, we believe we’re in the midst of this bifurcation with the East. There are opportunities coming with onshoring of manufacturing, supply chain and logistics, and they’re going to be pronounced.

Two, we have a deep and abiding belief in the legacy industrial centers of the Western world. Detroit and Pittsburgh. Stuttgart and Turin. Tokyo and Seoul. The economic West. If they make the right strategic and technology decisions, they can remain relevant and not just be at the table, but lead for the next 100 years.

What is your approach to vetting prospective investments at Assembly Ventures?

We define mobility as the physical and digital movement of people, goods, data and energy. Looking holistically at this, the only way to maximize the opportunity is to look at this through a very wide lens.

You once swore you’d never invest in another parking company. What was it about Metropolis, which Assembly Ventures recently added to its portfolio, that made you change your mind?

It’s because they’re not a parking business. I say that in an honest way. Parking is a bit of a Trojan horse.

The problem within the parking industry is there’s traditionally three layers to that cake: the asset owner, the parking operator and the technology provider. What Metropolis is doing is combining the technology and operator portions of that, and then they can go to asset owners with a compelling offering that’s going to increase utilization.

How quickly does Assembly Ventures need a return on investment? Do companies need to have real-world technology that’s tangible today, or can you make longer-term bets?

Traditionally, there’s been a bit of a “If this isn’t a software, software-as-a-service model, it’s not for me” mindset with technology investors. We are very much not that. If you are truly solving a hard problem that has a hardware component, that’s a great thing because you just solved something that’s incredibly difficult, and there’s going to likely be a big market behind it.

Maybe that’s a good segue into asking about Our Next Energy, a southeast Michigan company that’s in your portfolio.

We see from a regulatory environment more focus on domestic supply chain for batteries and battery production, which is something I absolutely agree with as it relates to national security and not trading one dependency for another. These are the things that we are willing to take those somewhat longer-term bets on, but in our opinion, likely with much greater payout.

How much of your view on energy policy comes from your time overseas in the U.S. Army?

You think about why we fight wars, and how do we mitigate them? How do we solve problems before they become problems? Those questions go through my mind when I think about things like energy policy. … When we think of where we are going as a nation, if we were to try to go completely off fossil fuels today, it would be Armageddon. There’s no way for us to supply the needs of the American family in a way for us to move completely off those.

But should we have a transition approach, using all of our resources to make sure we’re getting to a place where we’re completely energy independent and we have the chemistries necessary to drive automobiles and the future needs of heavy industry? The answer is absolutely.

How much does the availability of raw materials play into an investment such as the one you made in Our Next Energy, specifically, and energy policy writ large?

There just has to be a focus on not trading dependencies. We can’t trade a dependency on the Middle East for petrol for a dependency on Southeast Asia for battery tech. We have the ability and capability, and in my opinion, the responsibility, to do this in the United States and with our allies in the West. There is no reason why we can’t do that in a way that actually moves the needle in terms of energy supply and decreased environmental impact.

Does the Inflation Reduction Act move that needle substantially?

I think the Inflation Reduction Act is focused on the wrong things. When you think of the most important things we have to do now when it comes to energy policy, manufacturing policy, jobs creation and upgrading our overall infrastructure, it’s very much a package that’s been put forward through a political lens rather than “How do we actually impact these things that we care about?” I don’t say that from a political view one way or the other. We need to be making sure we’re moving those forward, and sometimes that goal is lost through a desire for quick wins that can be marketed rather than long-term success. Other nations around the world are very focused on their 100-year plan. What’s our 100-year plan? I don’t think many people can speak to that in a way in which, frankly, they should.

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