Welcome to our special podcast edition featuring a unique conversation between Sarah Cicotte from Ann Arbor SPARK and Marvin D. Yates, Sr. from the National Security Innovation Network. In this episode, Sarah and Marvin discuss how startups in mobility tech are evolving from local projects to contributors in national defense. They share stories of success, explore the challenges and opportunities of their partnership, and look ahead to exciting future innovations. Tune in to discover how these collaborations are pushing the boundaries of technology and security, and shaping a brighter, safer future.
Listen to the interview
Sarah: Good afternoon. I’m Sarah Cicotte, the Director of Mobility Programs at Ann Arbor SPARK. I focus on advancing the mobility industry in the greater Ann Arbor region, working closely with startups and fostering industry connections. Before joining Ann Arbor SPARK, I worked as a project manager at the University of Michigan’s Mcity and as an engineer at General Motors, specializing in vehicle engineering.
With me today is Marvin D. Yates Sr. of the National Security Innovation Network or NSIN. Marvin is a lifelong Detroit area resident and recent a2Tech360 Tech Talk presenter. Marvin has an extensive background in IT in business, starting his career at Ford Motor Company as a systems analyst and IT project manager. Marvin holds a degree in business administration data processing and an MBA in computer information systems. Marvin joined the Department of Defense in 2012 with the Defense Intelligence Agency and spent 10 years with them in Washington DC and here in Michigan.
Marvin has also worked with Prosper US Detroit, a local CDFI, contributing to entrepreneurship training and Business Establishment, in Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, and Inkster. Additionally, Marvin has volunteered in various capacities, including as chairman of the Economic Development Corporation and his local community of Melvindale, Michigan.
NSIN is dedicated to building a network of innovators to address national security challenges. It focuses on developing collaborations between defense, academia, and venture communities adapting to the evolving nature of security threats. NSIN’s programs aim to create agile and adaptive solutions fostering diversity and bringing together different ecosystems to solve for uncertainty in national security. Marvin and I are going to delve into the world of mobility tech startups and their journey from Ann Arbor SPARK to the National Security Innovation Network.
We’ll share insights into their successful collaboration highlighting projects that have emerged from this partnership and discuss the broader implications for the Department of Defense and the tech ecosystem.
Marvin, thank you for joining me. Let’s jump in. How does the collaboration between Ann Arbor SPARK and ISIN work?
Marvin: Well, first of all, thanks so much for having me and inviting me to today’s series. I appreciate it and it’s good to see you. As you know, generally I try to participate with Ann Arbor SPARK for events and programs and discuss things that might seem beneficial to both our organizations whenever possible. I also get direct referrals from you and other members of the organization when they come across a company with dual-use technology. That means they’ll have a commercial side and a defense side or direct requests from a company that they’re working with that wants to get connected to the Department of Defense.
Sarah: Awesome. Can you share some success stories of mobility tech startups that transitioned from Ann Arbor SPARK to NSIN?
Marvin: Well, we’ve had discussions and managed to forge at least a few preliminary relationships with a few different companies both before I got here and since I joined. They include Ann Arbor batteries or rather Arbor batteries who have participated in a couple of our programs and have also gotten additional assistance with pitch competitions where they were an xTech Search 7 winner and we’ve also helped them connect to the US Army and get an SBIR grant. SBIR is Small Business Investment Research as well as connecting them with the US Department of Energy. Since I joined, we’ve also held startup meetings with FreightMiner, LiveRoad, Intermode, and Bedestrian. We’ve met and held our preliminary, what we call front door type of meeting with the transition sales team to kind of give each of these companies a sort of Department of Defense, one-on-one introduction,
Sarah: Fantastic opportunities for these tech startups that we work with at SPARK, and I’m really happy to pass them along to you. What unique opportunities does this pipeline offer to startups in the mobility sector?
Marvin: Well, like I said, we provide a sort of introduction to working with the Department of Defense. We introduce them to our programming and depending on where they are as a company or with their technology, they can take advantage of applying for some of our agency’s programs, other programs and opportunities with our mission partners, meaning any branch of the military as well. So it’s kind of open to them and we kind of let them feel their way around and we try to give them some direction, some links, some direct links and things like that.
Sarah: Fantastic. Let’s discuss a specific project like Bedestrian or Intermode that exemplifies the fruits of this collaboration.
Marvin: Well, Bedestrian, we held a startup meeting with them last year and they also participated in our 2023 Defense Entrepreneurial Symposium, which gave them exposure to several of our mission partners all at once. We had people online, it was a virtual symposium and we had people online from every branch of the military. They actually got a chance to share their pitch deck with mission partners from all over the world and the IC community as well. So we had several different agencies that were online.
I had a conversation recently with some of their people and they are actually making some shifts related to how we gave them some direction in their pitch, and they’re hoping to have a second meeting with us in the next couple months or so. Intermode, we held a startup meeting with them in October and suggested several opportunities such as registering with sam.gov. We also referred them to the Defense Innovation Unit, which is our associated agency. We also made some connections with them and their Air Force Smart Sales as well as the autonomous Airfield Repair Robot Swarm platform, which is a Siver phase two. So they got a lot of different directions and they actually got a grant as well.
Sarah: Thanks, Marvin. Can we step back and tell our listeners what is the IC community?
Marvin: So the IC community is agencies such as the Defense Intelligence Agency or the CIA or the Department of Homeland Security, all those line up under the auspicious IC communities, intelligence communities.
Sarah: Perfect. Thank you for clarifying. How does FreightMiner fit into the broader picture of mobility and defense innovation?
Marvin: So FreightMiner uses the hybrid approach by pairing both autonomous driving and teleoperated human driving. They have an aftermarket teleoperated autonomous driving conversion kit that they put on trucks and converts them to existing human-driven trucks into autonomous driving trucks, and they use those over long freeway stretches and they can be remotely controlled by human teleoperators anywhere else without voiding the manufacturer’s warranties, and we also referred them to the Leader Fowler program, which is part of the autonomous vehicle transport system.
Sarah: Thank you. I know Freight Miner has been very busy since he won the best of Boot Camp competition last year at SPARK. In what ways does staying connected with incubators like SPARK benefit NSIN and the Department of Defense?
Marvin: Not all companies or organizations even know about NSIN to begin with. So it always helps to get an introduction from someone that they’ve been working with, someone that they trust. It helps us to get introduced to these entities and provides us with an ongoing source of connection to the companies here in Ann Arbor as well as the state of Michigan.
Sarah: Thank you. I know often I’ll ask companies if they would like an introduction to you, and then they also want an introduction to NSIN, and I’m always happy to spread the news. How do these partnerships impact the local tech ecosystem and the community?
Marvin: Well, we are sort of the boots-on-the-ground connection for local small businesses and for accelerators like yourselves, local tech ecosystems and the community. We are the first face of the Department of Defense that they come in contact with. We help to put a POC in the area that can connect with them directly and help take the mystery out of working with the Department of Defense.
Sarah: That’s a great opportunity, great work that you do also. What challenges have you faced in fostering these collaborations and how have you overcome them?
Marvin: Well, Sarah, I think you and Ann Arbor SPARK have played a significant role in that one, mine, and NSIN’s behalf. I know my predecessor, Ms. Allison Beaty, worked for Ann Arbor SPARK before coming to NSIN, and she made it a point on my first day to introduce me to you and the team, and it has proven to be a very good working relationship, and I hope I’ll continue to grow and benefit both of us. I mean, overall, no one would know we existed before situations like yours where you introduce us and give us an opportunity for a platform. I really enjoyed speaking at a2Tech360 last year, and to tell the truth, I’m still handling contacts from that event.
Sarah: It’s a big event. It’s a big event. Yes. I remember when we met for the first time, and Alice Beatty continues to have great success since she’s moved on, and we definitely miss her at SPARK. How important is it for startups to maintain connections with incubators and smart zones in their growth journey?
Marvin: I think it’s very important, Sarah. The incubators in our area provide so much support and instruction, direction and connections for the startup community. Most early-stage ventures, while they may have great ideas and know their technology, they don’t always know how to really get into and do business, and entities such as Ann Arbor SPARK and others provide this roadway to a system with their growth and development.
Sarah: When we talk to new clients, I say, I’ll connect to you, I’ll convene you, I’ll help you overcome common obstacles, and all the other tools that we have at SPARK to help out early-stage companies. What future collaborations or projects are you most excited about in the mobility tech space?
Marvin: Well, we’re currently looking forward to working with the new University of Michigan Electric Vehicle Center, as well as the opportunity to participate in other Ann Arbor SPARK-related events. I even was exposed to recently the Economic Growth Institute’s Defense and Mobility Resiliency Consortium, and that’s a newly funded piece from the University of Michigan. They got a grant from the DoD and they’re moving forward with it, so we’re going to work with them this year, too.
Sarah: Fantastic. We’re looking forward to another a2Tech360 this year. I believe our dates are September 20th to 27th, and we will be back at it again. Marvin, I really appreciate you spending this time chatting with me. I want to thank our audience for listening and learning about the innovative mobility ecosystem in our region.
For more information about Ann Arbor SPARK, you can find us on the web at annarborusa.org and also on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Thank you, Marvin.
Marvin: Thank you, Sarah.
About Marvin Yates, Sr.
Marvin D. Yates, Sr. is a lifelong Detroit area resident, except for a 3yr. stay in Washington DC, when he first began his career in the Department of Defense. He completed his undergraduate degree in Business Administration – Data Processing from the Detroit College of Business in 1986 and his MBA in Computer Information Systems at Baker College in 2000. Marvin obtained his Project Management Professional (PMP) certification in 2006.
Marvin has had a varied career and began working in IT in 1984 with the River Rouge Savings Bank. He then joined Ford Motor Co. in 1995, serving as a Systems Analyst and IT Project Manager for 12 yrs. In 2012 Marvin joined the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) serving initially as an IT project manager, and subsequently as the Section Chief for Internal Use Software (IUS) and Internal Controls. While with DIA, Marvin returned to Detroit and began work with ProsperUS Detroit as an Instructor in their Entrepreneurship Training Program in 2016. For the last seven years, he has assisted entrepreneurs in business plan development, and all phases of business start-up, management, operations and provided ongoing mentorship.
Mr. Yates’ volunteer work includes serving as the Chairman of the Economic Development Corporation for the City of Melvindale, MI between 2015 – 2021. His previous work with the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) has included serving as a mentor on the “Into the Data Verse” hackathon at the University of Michigan in 2019, training in the H4D Educators Course in 2020, and participating in NSIN’s Hirethon Ambassador Program in 2021-2023.