Startupbootcamp prepares for possible autonomous car pivot
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Photo credit: Startupbootcamp

Photo credit: Startupbootcamp

The accelerator network’s Berlin franchise is expecting major changes to the smart transportation and energy program in wake of the self-driving car explosion

What we thought we knew about smart cars and autonomous vehicles was wrong. Going into CES, you wouldn’t be faulted for downplaying the expected timeframe for self-driving cars going to market. General Motors’ $500 million investment in Lyft toward a fleet of autonomous taxis and the manufacturer’s partnership with Mobileye to create a mapping algorithm stole the show. Rumors of a Ford-Google alliance fizzled, but Cadillac, Tesla and Delphi have already integrated semi-autonomous technology into their vehicles and more ventures are on the way.

With the industry now gushing with cash, it might signal an inevitable pivot for Startupbootcamp’s Berlin-based accelerator. Startupbootcamp Smart Transportation & Energy only took on its vertical focus in 2015 and invited startups working on bike-sharing, energy-monitoring, and meetup applications. The utility of those industries is not in question, but the funding announcements and unexpectedly strong pace of autonomous vehicle research might mean big changes for the program.

“I’m expecting a massive shift,” Berlin Managing Director Tanja Kufner told Geektime. “It also depends on the partners.”

Startupbootcamp founder Alex Farcet moved to the city in 2012 and set up shop, though it took time to hone in on smart transportation as the accelerator’s focus. Each team receives €15,000, six months of free office space at Rainmaking Loft Berlin and €400,000 worth of perks and services from the program’s sponsors. Mentors include Wilfried Steffen, head of business innovation for Daimler AG; Florian Lennert of the Intelligent City Forum; and WunderCar founder Gunnar Froh, among 120 others.

2014 featured four German companies: fleet manager myBus, solar energy manager Sunride, e-commerce company Einfash-machen-lassen and recently funded Routier. Their outgoing class pitched their ventures in November to a huge crowd surrounded by vintage and modern automobiles that would make connoisseurs salivate.

“Deutsche-Bahn is here. Daimler has been a partner for four years. It kind of made sense to explore a vertical of interest to them,” she emphasizes.

But Berlin isn’t all Autobahn. There’s a burgeoning e-bike industry, a huge hub for car-sharing and of course the city’s growing tech ecosystem that is starting to rival London. The class of 2015 included international cycle registry Bike-ID, energy-monitoring startup Envio Systems, B2C driver FreewayWorks, collaborative transportation platform Podaris, meetup-optimization app seeusoon, Shipwise, Stickables and TruckIn.

Accelerating smart car startups for self-driving cars

Kufner has raised a fund that should last through 2017 and cover three cycles, though that doesn’t mean the curriculum is set in stone. Her team wasn’t quite ready to look into companies to help drive autonomous cars, but this year’s CES isn’t the only thing changing their sponsors’ calculus. BMW is partnering with Baidu for Chinese driverless cars. Samsung is throwing its hat into the ring.

She isn’t prepared to speak on behalf of Startupbootcamp’s automotive sponsors, but there is a good chance robotics will be on the discussion list in the next couple of weeks when she begins plotting the course for 2016’s accelerator. Just like a team that didn’t qualify for the playoffs, that could leave perfectly worthy startups on the outside looking in.

“The strange thing is I’ve got eight corporate partners now and our job is to service the startups in the mobility space. We select only the ones that at the same time would benefit from the partnership from these corporations,” she notes.

So if the enterprises aren’t interested, they’re not in. But if there is going to be a shift to autonomous vehicles in the accelerator, that means a whole different type of application. Very few startups are actually working in that area. Most smart car startups are perfecting dashboards and integrating car diagnostics with apps. As we recently highlighted, there are several companies doing some good work here: French smartcar app Xee, Vinli, Automatic, Zubie and German-based High Mobility. Still, the industry has a slew of solutions that would go a long way in building a fully integrated, autonomous vehicle.

One company that bridges the two verticals and might be a preview of what Berlin will pursue is TriLumina, a platform integrating HMIs (human-machine interfaces) and predictive analytics into real-time driving. Several companies are producing smart sensors for object detection, like Quanergy, Capio, Driversity, and drunk-driving blocker Sober Steering.

Startupbootcamp’s sponsors are also scribbling their ambitions on the proverbial wall. 2015 co-sponsor HERE is already looking to integrate its mapping technology into future self-drivers. In the next couple of weeks, Kufner will meet again with sponsors for the next year and iron out what they’d like to see in the companies they accelerate. She’ll be looking for more sponsors along the entire supply chain of the automotive industry.

“The interesting thing is that we scout on behalf of the partners that invest in us. We’re getting back together on the tech we find particularly interesting.”

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