“Another Industrial Revolution Is On The Horizon”, Says VP Business Development and R&D at Magna International, Ian R. Simmons

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StartUs Magazine spoke to Ian R. Simmons about the future of transportation, his vision for Magna International, and the role of cutting-edge startups in the company’s open innovation process.

Ian Simmons has served as Vice President Business Development, Corporate Engineering and R&D at Magna International since 2012. Simmons is responsible for identifying and developing new business opportunities with startups, universities, and entrepreneurs. As a result of his work in the last 18 months, Magna has entered into partnerships with more than 16 companies and invested over $270 million.

To find out more about Magna’s co-innovation with cutting-edge startups and their current Startup Program “Leading Mobility”, we sat down with Ian Simmons:

Ian, you joined Magna in 2003 as Executive Director Sales and Program Management for Magna Steyr North America. What can you tell us about your journey before working for one of the world’s leading automotive suppliers?

I have worked in the automotive industry for more than 35 years, starting my career with student training at the Ford Motor Company in the UK. I then undertook engineering assignments in Europe with Volkswagen and DAF Trucks. After that, I became a Business Development Manager at Hawtal Whiting Plc. where I was responsible for sales activities in the UK and Europe. From there, I transferred to the company’s US operation to become VP of Sales and later VP of Operations in R&D. I returned to the UK Director of Business Development for a TWR Group company. I returned to the USA with a Tier One supplier before joining Porsche Engineering Services as head of sales in 2000.

In 2003, I joined Magna, and, just over 6 years ago, I joined R&D where I now work not only with innovative employees of Magna but also with promising startups from all over the world.

What is your mission at Magna? What are you currently working on and what is your vision for the company?

At Magna, our main mission is to innovate to keep adding value to our end customers. In order to achieve this, it is important for us to respond to current and future trends which include electrification, the shift from mechanical to electromechanical as well as autonomous driving. We are the largest provider of ADAS camera systems and are developing RADAR, LiDAR, and advanced surround camera systems. We are also developing autonomous platforms. As one part of these efforts, we recently partnered with Lyft, and are working on an autonomous system with shared IP.

We also see great advancements in new mobility as the global transportation landscape is quickly changing and Mobility as a Service (MaaS) plays a larger role. In this regard, ride and car sharing are major trends, however, as cities move toward electrical vehicles (EVs) the requirements are likely to be different. So, we are looking at multiple scenarios of what mobility and mobility as a service will look like in the future.

Clearly, innovation and emerging technologies are important topics for Magna – two of the reasons you established an “open for business” approach. What does this entail in terms of working with young companies?

We invest a lot of time and effort into, what we call innovation outreach. Our approach to innovation is to actively go out and promote our need for innovation – in Europe, for example with our partner StartUs Insights.

Of course, our engineers are working on new technologies, however, we realize that a vast amount of great ideas and innovation comes from startups and entrepreneurs. This is why we place great value in sponsoring or speaking at events and universities to get in touch with startups. In the last 18 months, we have partnered with 16 companies and invested $270 million either in partner VCs or individual startups.

What are some of the technologies you are currently looking into?

The manufacturing industry has experienced an impactful revolution with the emergence of Industry 4.0. Today, we are seeing advancements in Cloud Computing, Big Data Analytics, Advances Robotics, Digital Factories, and 3D Printing, among others. With data and tech capabilities rising at a very fast pace, there is essentially another industrial revolution on the horizon.

For startups and entrepreneurs who are passionate about the solutions they are developing and want to go to market fast, this can present a difficult challenge. This is where Magna comes in. We support these young companies in taking their technology to market, growing and scaling their businesses, or provide a better manufacturing environment.

Drover Magna StartUs Insights

Drover, one of the winners of Magna’s “Driving the Future of Mobility” Startup Challenge

Can you share some examples of startups you have previously partnered with?

Uhnder, for example, is a company whose solution we believed had high market demand. For them to put their technology to market was to find the right partners. Therefore, have collaborated in engineering and product development to bring ICON RADAR, a high-resolution automotive radar, to market in 2021. By providing precise detection, extensive range, and high resiliency, ICON RADAR will help to close the gap between level 3 and level 5 to reach full reliable autonomous driving.

LiDAR is another technology with high potential as it is one of the critical enablers to achieve the desired levels of performance and overall safety. We partnered with the Israeli company Innoviz Technologies to integrate automotive-grade, solid-state LiDAR into our autonomous driving platform. The collaboration between our companies was very agile and quick and was awarded a LiDAR contract from BMW.

With another company, Rohinni LLC, we have formed a joint venture to produce ultra-thin micro LED lighting solutions that are brighter, lighter and more energy-efficient than alternative technologies such as OLED. For their technology, we have an exclusive use in the automotive industry, which is one reason we decided to partner with Rohinni.

When you decide to partner with a startup; what are some of the criteria you are looking at? What is especially interesting to you in this regard?

Oh, definitely the team is most important. We look at the founders, how the team works together, and how they are organized. We also try to meet the team in person to understand what their aspiration is, whether they want to build a mega company or are looking for an exit. The reason for doing this is to meet the startup’s goals as well as Magna’s – we are always looking for a win-win situation.

In the startup world, everything is moving very quickly so it’s not uncommon for startups to pivot fast and often. That being said, it’s not only mobility or automotive startups that are interesting for us. There is a great amount of innovation in the automotive/mobility sector such as sensors from the military industry that were not originally intended for this sector. We’re always keeping an eye out for different solutions to find what is applicable in the automotive industry.

What is important to Magna when it comes to partnering with a startup?

Since we screen around 1.800 startups in any given year, we place great value in creating a win-win situation. We start talks quite fast because we believe in the “fail fast, fail cheap” principle. Magna enters 20+ PoCs per year and for every PoC we go forward with, we invest time and money because we believe in the technology and the people developing it. However, if we see that a PoC is not working as we expected, we are also not afraid to terminate the collaboration quickly because we don’t want to hinder a startup in going forward with their business.

Magna has recently launched a new Startup Program, called “Leading Mobility”. What are some of the key objectives? What are you looking for?

We see great potential in Europe’s startups in terms of resources and technical skills and we aim to become a technology partner for these companies. With “Leading Mobility” we are taking a step to go toward this direction and invite startups from all industries to apply if their solutions are applicable to the automotive industry. We aim to be a partner for these startups and ensure a sustainable future for them.

More specifically, we are looking for solutions in four key areas: autonomous driving, electrification, connectivity, and new mobility. Especially interesting to us are solutions with the potential to differentiate Magna and extend our product portfolio. This can include sensors, feature development, and software when we talk about autonomous driving; new use cases and unique ideas for new mobility and manufacturing solutions such as advanced robotics and 3D printing.

What’s your message to European startups and innovators?

It never hurts to talk. Startups and innovators who believe they have a technology which is of interest to Magna should talk to us. If we think the startup and Magna can benefit from a partnership we will engage and provide teams with an opportunity to grow fast and scale on a global level. The bottom line is: don’t be afraid to reach out!




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