How Piaggio’s Fast Forward Lab Has Evolved Its Approach

By Hadley Thompson, Meghan Hall |  April 17, 2024

The Italian motorcycle and scooter manufacturer Piaggio Group set up an innovation lab in Boston in 2015, dubbing it Piaggio Fast Forward.

The lab’s first product launch was a cargo-carrying, tag-along wheeled robot called Gita, sold directly to consumers. But more recently it has shifted into developing safety sensors that can help robots — and motorcycles — get better information about the world around them. Another product, the Kilo robot, is designed to carry heavier loads around airports or hotels.

Overseeing Piaggio Fast Forward is CEO Greg Lynn, an architect who was previously the lab’s Chief Design Officer. We spoke with Lynn about the evolution of Piaggio Fast Forward as part of our recent research initiative, “Driving Growth Through New Ventures and Corporate VC.”

• • •

Walk me through your day. How does Piaggio Fast Forward report to the larger Piaggio organization

No two days are ever the same. We’re a company that’s large enough that there are people responsible for everything, but small enough that what everybody’s doing has an impact on everybody else… 

I work closely with our small leadership team. We’re a very tight group. Every two weeks, we’re releasing something, whether it’s an update to an app, a new feature for a robot, or a new piece of hardware. …I have a really good relationship with the chairman of my board, who’s been the chairman of my board ever since [PFF] was formed. We’ll talk pretty regularly about progress and challenges and needs and resources. We negotiate annual investment. 

The one thing that I don’t have to do that a lot of other CEOs in my position would be doing is running around trying to chase investment. There are upsides and downsides to everything. …We have an annual budget, and [we] don’t vary from that budget. We manage to it. We’ve had a lot of conversations about outside investment and acquiring some other companies. We’ve had a lot of those discussions, but so far, it’s very clean and simple. 

We have one sole investor. They own the majority of the company other than what the employees own. That means that our books, quarterly and annually, get consolidated into theirs. That involves some gymnastics, just because we’re a US company and they’re a European company, because they sell and manufacture all over the world. They have a dozen other companies that are true subsidiaries, whether it’s manufacturing or sales companies. We are the only freestanding company with products unrelated to motorcycles and scooters.

What were the origins of Piaggio Fast Forward?

PFF came out of a very visionary CMO at Piaggio Group, Davide Zanolini, and [CEO] Michele Colaninno said, “We need to do something that will get us in play around autonomous driving technology, and scooter sharing.” These two things were happening at the same time, mostly on the west coast. It threatened the business of the Piaggio Group, because they just thought, “What happens when people are not driving anymore, but just passengers and robots? What happens when transportation and mobility is a rental or shared resource in cities?” What they wanted to do was get educated. They were looking for a think tank. They even had the ambition to have that think tank do concept vehicles for motorcycle shows to get press. A lot of venture arms of companies at that time were doing that kind of work. 

Instead of having innovation in the company, they would set up a small freestanding company that would be responsible for innovation. A lot of those ventures were constantly trying to claw their way back into their parent company. They wanted to be doing innovation and be doing something new but they also wanted to get back within the company because they knew the horizon might not be very long. Those two requirements make it very difficult, either to be innovative or to get back into the company. 

The first meeting we had, which was very much like a think tank meeting, was the biggest disaster you would ever imagine. I was so happy because I thought it was a disaster. It was a big group of people from a management consulting background that just said, “Hey, everybody’s scooter sharing and everybody’s doing autonomous driving, so what would be innovative would be if you did shared Vespas, and if you did autonomous pizza delivery.” 

The first meeting we had, which was very much like a think tank meeting, was the biggest disaster you would ever imagine.

It didn’t seem very innovative at all. It just seemed like everybody was getting the same news and just regurgitating what they thought innovation was. The people who operate the Piaggio Group just said, “Sharing scooters is interesting, but isn’t that already happening? Delivering pizza with an autonomous Vespa sounds hellish to us. We don’t want to live in a world where some kid orders a pizza on a couch, and some Vespa drives up and figures out how to throw it through the window so the kid doesn’t have to get up from the couch.” They said, “We’re in the business of improving the quality of people’s lives, making them love our products, having them associate our products with freedom and adventure and love and connection and all these things.” When you say Vespa, everybody has those connotations. They said, “We’re not interested in solving pain points,” to use the lingo of the time. They were more interested in being a lifestyle brand. 

They took that kind of a consumer lifestyle improving approach, and that’s what PFF was born out of. …We were always looking to augment people with technology, rather than replace them entirely, or do a job for them. We always want to do a job with a person rather than for a person, even if it’s just a little job. We would rather not focus on the jobs people don’t want to do like surveying nuclear reactors or whatever that might be. We want to be with people when they’re doing the things they like to do at their job or the things they’d like to do as a person. That came totally from our investors. 

In what unique way do you create value for the parent company that is investing in you?

Learn more about this report.

There are a few unique things what we do that probably no other company is doing, for better or worse. One of the things we’re good at is sensor fusion, meaning we take cameras like fisheye RGB cameras, time of flight cameras, or cameras that judge depth and build a point cloud. We also take 4D radar on a chip. In one of our robots, we will have nine streams of data coming from those three different arrays of sensors. We use machine learning to figure out which stream of data we trust… We’re very good at filtering data from different kinds of sensors into something that can help us navigate. 

It turns out that we had what’s called 4D radar on a chip on a robot before the motorcycle industry was looking at 4D radar on a chip for rider safety. [4D radar can detect an object’s distance, orientation, speed, and height.] Rather than go to one of two large OEM suppliers, we were contracted by the Piaggio Group to build custom radar sensors, calibrate them, and integrate them on scooters and motorcycles. 

What do you think about some of the things that your team has released over the past eight-plus years? And what have you learned?

When we launched our very first Gita robot, I vividly remember we bought a large number of everyday grocery items, athletic items, and items associated with school kids, and brought all this stuff into our office. We had a bunch of different-sized boxes and started figuring out what we thought the right capacity would be for a following robot to help a person make their local errands in their neighborhoods. Being an architect, I should have known that we would always go with something more than what we need. Everybody always asks for more than what they want, and then they’re not happy with what they get because it’s too big. 

We ended up with a pretty big cargo capacity that would satisfy everybody. We knew that we had to have the robot small enough that it would take up the same space as a person. We knew it needed to be able to accelerate and decelerate as fast as a person could, so it had to balance and it had to have two wheels. We knew it had to go through a door and fit through a door… Those were the requirements. 

A Gita cargo robot, left, with the smaller Gita Mini, introduced in 2021.

We built a robot, we went to market with it, and we heard from a lot of customers. We heard, “It’s too big to charge in my house, it’s as big as my lounge chair.” We heard it’s tough to move it around, and especially tough to get in a car. It only fits in the front seat, and it doesn’t always fit in every truck. 

A lot of people who were living in cities…said that it’s hard to get on and off a subway, or on and off of all kinds of things. So we decided let’s make a mini one. Let’s make a smaller one that will hold 70 percent of the stuff, but not the full 100 percent of the stuff that we were looking at. We did lifting and we did research. We did full-scale models with weights, and had people come in that we hired. We did all kinds of motion studies and captured them. Then we launched the Gita Mini. 

For that group, we did much better with the robot than we did with the first one. Going out with something and not trying to satisfy everybody, but understanding that we needed two products rather than one product for everyone. That was something we hadn’t realized. We hadn’t realized that even though it was the same fundamental proposition of a product for people in different geographies, for people with different strengths and sizes and fitness levels, you needed more than one product if you wanted a product to succeed. That was something we should have known, but that we learned, and it was great to not think that you’re building a one-size-fits-all approach, but that you’re listening to different constituents and trying to give them an equitable experience of the product that’s tailored for them. 

Our mission has never changed, and it has been very clear. It has always been about augmenting people…

What would you share as one best practice or piece of advice for others who are trying to build new businesses or ventures for a large company that would allow them some longevity?

Have a big idea and a big mission. Our mission has never changed, and it has been very clear. It has always been about augmenting people, and making autonomy for humans. We had a very strong focus on direct-to-consumer sales of robots. We realized [there were] all these business opportunities we were not taking advantage of, [and said that] we need to make a new product for some of these specific business opportunities. For us, that was the pivot, but it was not a pivot that said, “Oh, we’re really good at sensor fusion, let’s figure out how to go work on a completely different product with a different set of values and strengths.” It was really about how we now augment people in the workforce, and what are the markets, which have the biggest workforce challenges where people will benefit the most from some help from technology. 

We’ve never said, “Let’s forget augmenting humans, let’s just take our technology in some warehouse somewhere and we’ll have that warehouse work in the dark, 24 hours a day with no humans at all.” … Instead, we’ve always held to what our core values are, and that means the teams don’t burn out. …All of our strengths can transfer during a pivot as long as we keep that mission intact. 

I would say that our mission was a little bit more ambiguous for the first few years of the company, but when I went from being the Chief Design Officer to the Chief Executive Officer, the first thing I said was, “Look, let’s consolidate all of these values we have into a clear agenda, and let’s just never change from it. Even if we change markets, form factor, whatever, let’s not touch it.” 

That’s why people come here to work. It’s why they do the work. It lets us be very flexible under that umbrella.