BMW is looking for startups: Here’s why and how to get an invite

Rather than pick them up himself, he provides advice and guidance to those looking to make an impact in the automotive industry.

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Startups are no longer just the brave underdogs of the tech world. In today’s fast-paced industry, they are even catching the attention of some of the biggest players in the automotive industry.

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Amid the more than 7,000 startups mingling and networking during the 2022 Collision Conference in Toronto, some familiar names continued to emerge, including BMW. The company founded more than a century ago to make aircraft, motorcycle and automobile engines is right at home among aspiring innovators.

However, consider apologizing if you thought BMW would follow Google, Apple, or Amazon playbook tactics of buying and investing in startups for its own gain. Here, the automaker sees itself more as a customer than an overlord.

Advice on Acquisitions

“Our role is primarily to provide guidance,” said Bernhard Schambeck, director of the BMW Startup Garage. The automotive industry is a massive playing field worth trillions of dollars, and it can be intimidating for a startup or new supplier to step in and understand the needs of the many automakers out there. The BMW Startup Garage is a way for BMW to engage with startups early on to help. “Our program helps startups succeed, and it’s about a lot of things, from networking to business development to scaling your technology.”

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He cites his work with the Canadian startup voice stream, which creates artificial voice dialogues and conversations, which helped the automaker prototype and test its own voice-activated virtual assistant in the car. Close collaboration between BMW and Voiceflow helped reduce development time for the new voice interface by fifty percent.

This kind of success benefits both BMW and the startup, and from the automaker’s perspective, getting involved early on with the startup is a big deal, which is why they attend and explore these types of tech conferences.

Exploring the future of the automotive

Dr. Frank Moebius is the Head of Technology Management and Forecasting at the BMW Group, which means he is responsible for exploring these opportunities. “To be a tech explorer, you need an infinite amount of curiosity,” he says of his work. He adds that the job requires good communication skills and a large phone book filled with open-minded experts to discuss things he finds.

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For example, a BMW Group engineer would approach Moebius and his team and ask, “What are the next generation display technologies?” The explorers would share information about the next five to ten years of displays from big vendors like Samsung or Panasonic, as well as smaller startups trying something new, innovative, risky and expensive.

“This is the ‘pull’ principle where we try to bring in a new startup function or technology that we can use at BMW,” he explains, adding that the automaker would then work with startup to get everything to fit together properly.

The alternative is the “push” principle, which begins with a regular forecast of technology trends. “For example, one trend is the circular economy,” he explains. The circular economy is about reusing, repairing, restoring and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible to reduce waste and improve the global footprint of a product. “Although it is not a traditional technological trend, it is very important to support sustainability. To deal with this circular economy, we have to manage a lot of technologies, recycling, materials, biomaterials, adhesives, all of that for decommissioning.”

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The automaker is looking at all industries, not just auto, but also space, healthcare and information technology to see what they have and if it can work in the spaces BMW operates in. An example that follows closely is bioadhesives. “You will see in the next products, step by step, we will increase our recyclability in the next few years,” he says.

see for yourself

BMW commissioning workshop
BMW commissioning workshop BMW photo

Mobius points to a few examples of where the BMW Startup Garage and Tech Scouting teams have found something new: sitting in the new BMW iX EV and looking at its wooden center console. It’s translucent and light flows through it, illuminating the iDrive controller labels and other buttons. “This translucent wood material, we had found it, we looked for it from two different companies six or seven years ago,” he explains. “They weren’t designed for the auto industry, but our scouts saw it and said ‘that’s great, that could fit our premium cars, let’s do a sample, let’s do a prototype!’ and so they developed it together to meet our needs.”

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Schambeck says the engineers at Startup Garage are very hands-on, sourcing the material or product and bringing it to their offices to thoroughly review it and provide feedback to the startup. He emphasizes that the startups they work with go beyond technology but include fashion, where the automaker can share automotive-grade specifications to help them meet the needs of BMW or other companies. “This worked for us when we were looking at leather alternatives that were originally found in bags and shoes, and are now being worked into car seats,” he explains.

Get a seat at the table

Everything suggests that there is a huge opportunity for startups of all kinds to win BMW as a partner. Fortunately, Schambeck shared some tips for those looking to make a good impression on the automaker.

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“If I had any advice for startups it’s that they should listen to their customers and listen to their requirements,” he said. “They must understand how to customize their product.” To clarify, he is saying that startups need to be flexible, shedding the ‘this is what we do, take it or leave it’ mentality.

Furthermore, he adds that BMW engineers are a big part of this process. They are experts in their field and are not easily impressed. “Sometimes we have startups that bring in their business development guys instead of the people who work on the product or the technology. Don’t do that, it’s a waste of time as our engineers want to meet the technical director, or at least the general manager”. Your engineers want all the specs, the details about a product or technology, and they need the heart of the matter to help them understand if BMW fits.

So, if you’re in a startup or have a creative idea or two on the go, don’t hesitate to take these tips to heart: Your next stop could be the BMW Group headquarters.

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