In anticipation of the Techonomy Detroit conference, we profiled tech startups driving the city’s re-emergence as a center of innovation.
Detroit has become notorious as a symbol of the decline of American manufacturing, but in recent years its startup scene has quietly begun to generate renewed optimism. Investors such as Detroit Venture Partners are financing successful tech-focused efforts including Detroit Labs’ web, iOS, and Android applications. Detroit has also become home to an outpost of TechShop, the Silicon Valley innovation incubator where people of all skill levels can use industrial tools and equipment to build their own products.
UpTo, a mobile application startup in the Detroit area, is garnering serious attention. The app is a social calendar that lets users share upcoming events with groups of friends, family, and co-workers. Techonomy contributor Tiffany Huang spoke with Greg Schwartz, UpTo’s CEO, about how his company is part of Detroit’s renewal as a city of the future.
What is UpTo and how does it work? What was the inspiration?
UpTo is the first social platform that is future-focused. Most social applications are focused on things happening right now, or recently. As you scroll through the feeds of information on Facebook or Instagram, you go backwards in time. But by the time we see a lot of the information, it’s already happened. For example, by the time I see my friend checked-in around the corner on Foursquare, he’s already gone.
Why is there no platform that lets [me] see what the people I care about have coming up an hour from now, a day from now, or a week from now? Most existing platforms like Facebook or Plancast are based on bigger events that you want broadcasted, but not really designed for me letting my work network know that this is something that I have coming up.
We created UpTo to solve this problem. Similar to Google Circle, you launch UpTo and you can connect with, and invite family members, coworkers, or friends to join, and bucket them into different groups to share things you’re up to. For example, my daughter’s nursery school priorities are relevant to people in our immediate family. Most of the events coming up in our lives are extremely relevant to specific groups and the app allows sharing of that information.
How is this different from seeing your friends’ event activity on Facebook? 
Everything on UpTo starts off as totally private; only things that you elect will get shared. We’re the opposite of Twitter in that [way]. With UpTo, you’re securing specific events with specific groups. Where you’re going to be tends to be private and personal. We designed the platform to give users tight control over not only what they share, but who they’re sharing it with. That is the only way to encourage a higher frequency of sharing: If everything was public, you’d probably only share one thing a week or one thing a month. When you can share all your work-related meetings and events with people in your work network, all of a sudden, others start sharing more stuff on UpTo with their relevant groups. It starts to unveil some of those missed opportunities.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
It takes time for a user to establish their network on a new social platform. [Demonstrating a] value proposition for the user who has no friends on UpTo is a challenge. That’s what pulled us in the direction of the event stream. You might not have any friends yet, but you can download UpTo and follow streams that are relevant to you. As you add people to your network it becomes more and more valuable.
Did you build this app with Detroit in mind, or were you always hoping to expand nationally? 
I studied computer engineering at Michigan and grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. I got into mobile about a decade ago when I moved to New York City and was doing entrepreneurial things on the side at a small mobile venture that was a hobby-business. As the mobile ecosystem started to grow, I focused on the entrepreneurial side full-time. I made the decision to come back to Detroit partially because that is where my family is, but also to be a part of all these exciting things happening here. When you’re doing something in Detroit, you’re part of something even bigger than yourself. You’re part of the comeback of the city.
Why should the rest of the country keep its eye on Detroit?
It’s amazing what’s happening in Detroit. In the bigger cities there is so much activity and a lot of shuffle. [Detroit] is a very tight-knit community and we’re fortunate to have access to the connections we have through Detroit Venture Partners and the whole scene happening here. Everybody knows everybody, and there’s a lot of sharing of ideas, sharing resources to not just grow our companies, but to help start the comeback of the city.
For complete coverage of the September 12, 2012, Techonomy Detroit conference, click here.