How GM’s Silicon Valley Office Hunts for Relevant Innovations

By Scott Kirsner |  October 1, 2014

Frankie James describes the volume of innovation happening in Silicon Valley in 2014 as a “firehose.” So how does she look for promising ideas and technologies that might deliver value for her employer, General Motors? James, managing director of GM’s Advanced Technology Silicon Valley Office (ATSVO), spoke to InnoLead about the four-stage process her team uses, and shared a graphic. (James will be one of the conversation leaders at our next Field Study gathering, Oct 22 & 23.)

“Our mission,” James says, “is to face the Silicon Valley firehose, try to filter it down, and get the most promising ideas and technologies back to our internal customers at GM, and ideally get them into vehicles.”

Frankie James

The small team, created in 2007, is about half people with GM experience, and half outside hires. They often collaborate with GM Ventures, looking for potential investment opportunities and helping with due diligence, and also interact with local universities. But the main assignment is identifying high-potential startups and technologies for GM’s research and engineering divisions.

GM’s Advanced Technology Silicon Valley Office is located in Palo Alto, less than two miles from the campus of Stanford University. The team is situated within GM’s research and development organization.

“There are a lot of startups right now who are pretty eager to work with automotive, especially in infotainment [in-car information and entertainment systems] space. We get a lot of startups that come to us. It’s true that some startups can get worry about working with a big company — and they probably have good reasons. Our job is to match their fast cycle with GM’s somewhat slower cycle. A lot of companies we’ve been successful at working with don’t have automotive as their primary market. So they can start making money in their primary market, and then think about the automotive use case and doing a project with us.”

One example of a partnership James mentioned was with Autonet Mobile, to bring in-car wifi systems to market. At first, “we said, give us a sample, we’ll try it out. So we put it in a vehicle and started driving it around, seeing how well it worked. The next step was to talk with as many people at GM as possible about where we could put this. We then made it available as an aftermarket component, initially across Cadillac, then GMC and Chevy SUVs. It’s great for keeping the family occupied on long trips.”

The big metric for James’ team is helping GM offer new products and services. “Ultimately, we like to see things driving down the road that we’ve had a hand in,” she says.”Startups tend to cluster around ideas, so you see a lot doing the same thing. Our job is to figure out what the differentiators are, and who is best of breed. Do they have a prototype? What is their maturity level?”

Her team uses a four-step process to hunt for concepts and technologies with the potential to develop into those new products and services. (See image at right.)

Scouting: “We spend a lot of time outside the office. My team goes to meetups, conferences, and networking events. We practically have free wine and cheese every night. We read TechCrunch and VentureBeat. But after you establish your network, people know your name and they come to you.”

Assessment: “That’s an initial evaluation based on a person’s area of expertise. Will this work? You can clear a lot of things out of the pipeline at that stage.”

Prototype: “At that point, we’re trying to engage an internal partner. What would help them understand the technology and how well it works? This is where the rubber hits the road. You find out what the startup is capable of, and where the technology is going to break down. My background is in speech interaction. There are a lot of great systems, but navigation and proper names can really trip up speech recognition. So you learn if they can handle it, and you learn whether the team understands why it’s not working well and whether they want to fix it — or if they just don’t have the resources or ability to make the changes we need.”

Champion/Transfer: This involves getting the technology into a new production vehicle, or integrating it into an existing research initiative at the company. “Some of the times we’ve had the most success with transfer were things we’d been asked to do, where there’s been a real need existing already. For instance, with the team doing Chevy Volt, the car was really quiet. They didn’t want people to leave it running all night. So we needed sound. The team came to me, and we hired an intern from Stanford to come in and develop sounds that would play when you started the car and turned it off. We did sound development, user testing, and produced a set of sounds for the Volt team. That was fantastic, and transferring it was really easy because they needed it.”

Connecting to HQ

“We’re in Silicon Valley, because Silicon Valley is a very different place than Michigan. It’s a tech-focused, early adopter culture. Things happen here way earlier than other parts of the world, so my team can raise our hands early in the process and say, ‘This is something GM needs to pay attention to, something that will impact us a lot.’ Sometimes it is going to feel like you’re tilting at windmills, but if you’re passionate you have to keep going. We want to lead, and be a great car company. But internally, you’re not always popular when you’re trying to change people’s to-do list [of priorities].”

“We want to understand what GM teams need, so we talk to them all the time. If we know a team is looking for sensors of a particular type, then we can set aside other projects that aren’t relevant to focus on that.””We’d like [GM employees at HQ and other sites] to visit us in Palo Alto more often than they do. People will come out for conferences or to work with vendors. When they do that, we try to introduce them to other companies if they’ve got time. We’re on the lookout all the time for different events outside of our own areas of expertise, to encourage people and lure them out to the Valley. We’ll say, ‘Come out to this conference and we can talk about other potential topics.'”

James was in Michigan when we spoke. “I get back every couple months to meet with the people here, look at demo vehicles, and touch base on what people are working on. Maintaining the lines of communication and building up trust is really important. If we can find tech that meets [a group at HQ’s] needs, they’ll come back to us again. And if we come up with some new trend that’s earth-shattering, it’s much easier to get attention if you’ve already built that trust.”

More on Frankie James: “GM’s Innovation Hunter is a Fast Driver Looking to Speed Up Car Development,” from Fast Company