TusStar is an affiliated network of tech startup incubators and early stage venture accelerators located in over 130 cities around the world. It is led by professors at Tsinghua University in China, a major research university in Beijing, and there is a TusStar Incubator in emerging tech hub Ann Arbor, where a number of academic faculty at the University of Michigan start new companies to make use of inventions found during their research careers. Frank Ni is the head of TusStar Ann Arbor, founded as the premier TusStar location in the U.S. in late 2017 on the north side of Ann Arbor which is famous for its engineering, science research, robotics and autonomous vehicle research campuses. “Innovation can go beyond borders,” Ni tells Cronicle of the philosophy of starting an international incubator in Southeast Michigan.
“The focus of TusStar Ann Arbor is to leverage Chinese manufacturing capabilities,” Ni says. “We have brought 15 of our startups to China to find funding and markets for their products.” This huge network of suppliers and funding can help new companies get off to a good start. Ni says that he wishes more startup founders realized the opportunities available through international partnerships. “Four of our companies set up joint ventures or subsidiaries in China,” he explains.
What kind of startups are succeeding during such uncertain times? TusStar has helped such new ventures as Trillium Security and DeepHow, an AI program that allows an older generation of workers to record their knowledge to train a younger generation. For those people looking to start a new company right now, Ni says that different types of startups work for different scenarios. “Automotive is facing changing times shifting from traditional engines to the electric and hydrogen economy,” he explains as an example of what he calls low-hanging fruit for new founders. “There are a lot of opportunities there for new startups.”
TusStar often supports new ventures by teaming up with university researchers to find grants to give founders a head start. “You can also use connections and former employers to help turn the tide of local industry,” Ni says of the benefit of networking with industry contacts. “People here are strong in electronics and mechanics. For transportation folks interested in starting a new company, we can also [leverage that expertise and] do motors for boats, scooters, and autonomous vehicles.”
Automotive is notoriously tough for newcomers to get connected, but Ni sees an opening for enterprising founders in Southeast Michigan. “All transportation is shifting toward electric,” he says, “so we think some areas are not being touched: electric trucks, for example. We are working with a Chinese company introducing a small electric pickup with the power of a Ford. It only goes 35 miles per hour so it’s used in construction and agriculture sites, but it only costs $5-6k. Some niches are good for entrepreneurs to explore.”
Ni works with all kinds of startups at TusStar, but he says there are particular opportunities at this time for founders in mobility tech and transportation, because the U.S. rail infrastructure, as another example, hasn’t been significantly invested in for nearly 100 years. “But tech is improving so much” at the same time, he says. “If you’re looking, there is tremendous opportunity here with electric and hydrogen technology as well.”
TusStar’s specialty seems to be in leveraging its massive international network to get new entrepreneurs connected across borders. “The world is learning from each other,” Ni says. “China has a lot of application for innovation through trial and error…. We should have entrepreneurs here who can pick up the low-hanging fruits.”
The goal: “To benefit people’s lives instead of building barriers,” Ni says quickly. TusStar has also helped China Online grow into a billion-dollar company, assisted Neatrition in developing their antibacterial antiviral technology that makes PPE masks reusable 10-20 times, and has worked with TechTransfer at the University of Michigan to license out technology and inventions from university faculty and staff that have turned into technology for startups ranging from solid-state batteries to remote charging car technology. We’re excited to see how the network of incubators assists entrepreneurs during such challenging times when trade negotiations and political tensions can make international business fraught with uncertainty. If you’d like to learn more about TusStar and to see if any of their programming is right for your new venture, you can learn more via TusStar Ann Arbor.