AutoVenture Forum to Play Matchmaker Between Promising Tech Companies and Big Automakers, Suppliers

7/6/10

David Bodde, a college professor who teaches entrepreneurship to engineers, believes the auto industry is going through “a quiet revolution”—one in which most of the innovation happens not at the big auto companies but at the tiered suppliers.

Bodde, an engineering professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, calls it a move “from a very vertically integrated innovation system to a much-more-open innovation system” in which promising young companies, filled with bright engineers, have the potential to move the auto industry forward faster than ever before.

A key challenge in realizing this vision, though, is finding ways for promising companies to simply get the attention of the major auto companies and suppliers, and put their ideas in front of them. This is especially true in fields that were once thought to be unrelated or tangential to the auto industry—such as microprocessors and software—but are now key to a growing number of electronic devices in automobiles.

That’s why Bodde is putting together what he is calling “the next logical step in automotive innovation,” a kind of matchmaking service for tech entrepreneurs and major automotive companies and suppliers, scheduled for Sept. 22 at the Rock Financial Showplace in Novi, MI. He already has lined up major automakers and suppliers for participation in what he’s calling the AutoVenture Forum, including General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, Delphi, and even Intel, which is working with automotive suppliers on operating systems for dashboard infotainment.

Now Bodde is looking for about 20 promising companies, by a July 16 application deadline, with whom the major players can talk and deal. He doesn’t want to bring “two guys tinkering in the garage to the auto industry,” Bodde says. He wants to bring companies that are “deal ready.” By that he means that they’ve already gotten some money from the likes of an angel investor or a state economic development agency. That way, there’s enough structure and substance to the outfit that it’s ready for an R&D agreement, a license, or a larger investment opportunity.

The germ of the idea came about two years ago, when Bodde and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to design and validate a system for connecting entrepreneurs to the automotive sector. The DOE, he says, wants to create a faster, cheaper innovation cycle to get fuel-economy and alternative fuel technologies into the marketplace sooner.

Bodde has served on a review panel for the FreedomCAR and Vehicle Technologies program, another DOE initiative aimed at partnering with industry for energy-efficient and environmentally friendly transportation.

That program introduced Bodde to the idea, but he says he wants to “take that one step further” and connect entrepreneurs more directly to these efforts.

Bodde envisions a forum every six months or so, each one focusing on a different aspect of automotive technologies. The first one will focus on vehicle connectivity, which includes infotainment, sensors, and navigation.

Each company will give a 10- or 15-minute presentation, Bodde says, followed by a question-and-answer period, and that’s all for the formal part. Then, they’ll have rooms set up where meetings can take place, proprietary information can be exchanged and, Bodde hopes, deals signed with major automakers and suppliers.

“The idea,” Bodde says, “is to get the introductions to lead to deals.”

Bodde hopes that it’s a win-win for small companies and for the large automakers and suppliers.

“We’d love to have a bunch of Michigan companies because I know that’s very rich territory,” Bodde says, adding that a forum like this sure beats cold calls, since the big guys actually want to hear from you. “I just think it’s a peach of an opportunity that we can offer, actually on both sides of the deal—on the industry side and on the entrepreneur side.”

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