Why Delphi Planted an Innovation Lab in Silicon Valley

By Scott Kirsner |  April 16, 2014

One of the major challenges of setting up an innovation-focused outpost in Silicon Valley — or anywhere else, for that matter — is creating connectivity. That means connecting both to the local ecosystem, and also back to the mothership.

We got some insight into that challenge recently from John Absmeier. Absmeier is a former Marine, California native, and long-time Delphi Automotive executive who now oversees the Delphi Labs @ Silicon Valley. The labs began taking shape in 2012, but moved into a higher-profile, garage-like space just last fall. Delphi is a $16 billion supplier of automobile components, with about 160,000 employees and a head office in Michigan.

Delphi Labs is focused on developing (and partnering with startups that are developing) new technologies in automated driving, cloud-based services, wireless connectivity, mobile devices, in-car “infotainment” systems, and wearables. The group there also keeps an eye out for promising opportunities that might be of interest to Delphi Venture Capital, the company’s $100 million venture capital fund.

“The primary goal is to leverage the ecosystem that exists here, and bring new technology into our product portfolio,” Absmeier says. “But another goal is to change some of the culture. The energy here is really palpable, and we want to bring some of that vibe to our global engineering organization. We’re trying to take our development cycles from months to minutes, and be more like consumer electronics product development efforts, where you can fail fast and move on quickly. We’re trying to foster that culture and those kinds of attitudes.” The Delphi Labs facility is located in Mountain View, not far from that search engine that shares Delphi’s interest in automated driving.

Absmeier’s key points are below, along with a single-slide overview of Delphi Labs; some photos of the space; and a video focusing on Delphi’s work on autonomous driving technology. 

  • “Right now, we have fifteen people, but we’re growing. The facility can accommodate 50 or so. It’s a combination of software engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, systems engineers, and business development folks. We’re trying to keep a 20-80 mix of experienced people from Delphi versus fresh hires from outside.” Some of the walls in the 6,000 square foot space were painted by a pair of graffiti artists Absmeier found on Facebook.”
  • Absmeier reports into Delphi’s Technical Center in Kokomo, Indiana. His direct reporting relationship is with Kathy Winter, VP of Software and Services.
  • Hiring in the Valley is brutal. “For freshly-graduated engineers, especially, salaries are extremely high. It’s very hard to compete on salary and benefits. I can’t wash your dog for you as an employee perk. But what I find is more interesting to these younger engineers is giving them challenging and extremely exciting work, the ability to work on things they wouldn’t have a chance to work on elsewhere, and see the results of what you’ve done in a car. Thanks to Tesla in particular, the automotive industry has become cool again.”
  • Absmeier says he tends to travel to HQ twice a quarter. “On a daily basis, my job is to talk to business units, and we have real goals that are tied to business objectives and producing results for them.” He adds that “Delphi is extremely global, and we have regular meetings and communications between our various sites about what we’re doing and what they need. A few times a year, we sync up on strategy, what gaps can be filled, and how we can help.”
  • Connecting with the startup ecosystem is a high priority, both to establish partnerships and to explore potential investments for Delphi Venture Capital. “We have partnered with the Plug and Play Tech Center [which houses startups and runs events]. They have become quite a magnet with automotive startups. We’re a corporate member, and we participate in their events. We have other outreach methods, too. Just being here and having folks from Stanford and Berkeley on our team, who are close to that community, we hear about a lot of startups and bring a lot of them in.” Absmeier and others at Delphi Labs also participate in informal gatherings, like the Silicon Valley Automotive Open Source Meetup.

Absmeier says Delphi has laid out four different ways of interacting with startups:

  1. “They have something we need, and we work with them to acquire the technology, like licensing it, integrating it, showing it to our customers.”
  2. “We co-develop something. In some cases, we might work to improve what they’ve got and solve a problem for our customers.”
  3. “We work independently with their technology. They might have an software development kit or an API, and we might build a new product around it or on top of it.”
  4. Finally, Delphi Venture Capital can invest in startups.

The measure of success for Delphi Labs in the Valley “is to see what we do here end up into production. Not to be so far immersed in the research that it never goes anywhere. We’re working to translate next-generation technologies into real-world products that can be sold to our customers, and that solve their problems.”

In the video below, Absmeier discusses Delphi’s work in autonomous driving technology, and delivering content and services to in-car displays.