The Partnerships Boom for Self-Driving Car Startups

Self-driving car technology has everyone in a frenzy. Recently, a journalist raved about the MIT spinoff iSee: “Finally, a driverless car with some common sense.” This tongue-in-cheek appraisal reveals something about the intensity that currently surrounds autonomous driving tech. There is so much activity in the space, but does anyone have the know-how to make fully autonomous cars happen?

Almost every other day, a major automotive or tech company takes a major step toward putting self-driving cars on the road. Will they become mainstream in the next few years, or not til 2025 or later? Every company offers a different target. Those outside the industry may wonder whether the bold claims are realistic, given the relative immaturity of autonomous vehicle technology. After all, the general public only started hearing about self-driving cars a few years ago. Is it possible for self-driving cars to possess genuine common sense – especially, enough to avert serious accidents?

Open innovation and mobility

helps young, science-based startups–like self-driving car technology startups–connect and partner with industry leaders. The reason we are so optimistic that self-driving cars will be available sooner than later is because we understand the power of open innovation. Open innovation is a process through which established corporations help new technologies succeed by licensing or otherwise incorporating intellectual property from outside the corporation’s walls. Open innovation has made an impact in many industries, and it’s becoming a powerful force in mobility. The pursuit of self-driving car technology is being defined by aggressive, purposeful open innovation – and for that reason, we look forward to safe, successful autonomous driving in the near future.

A snapshot of recent partnerships with self-driving car startups

These days, automotive tech conferences and tech communities are abuzz with talk of self-driving car partnerships. The laundry list of partnerships in the autonomous driving space is exhausting to read. A recent graphic from earlier this year (credit to Ptolemus Consulting) paints a picture in logos. Countless closed-door meetings are taking place between big players (such as BMW, Ford, Uber) and newer autonomous companies (such as and Luminar). What do established car companies and leading tech companies stand to gain from working with brand new startups and teams of researchers?

Recode offers this concise thesis. “As the hype around driverless cars grew, so did the demand for teams with backgrounds in AI and machine learning — both relatively nascent fields. Even the biggest tech companies, namely Uber, were left wanting.” Established companies need insight into niche, sophisticated software problems. In exchange, they are providing critical resources to startups with great ideas for how to build the self-driving future. The support corporations can provide includes funding, in-kind resources, market access, and more. (Read more about how companies help seed members scale up.)

Seeking smart partnerships

What do these new partnerships look like? Startup teams may opt to join forces with large companies instead of going it alone. As a 2016 Fortune article mentions, GM acquired a company for $1B that didn’t even have a product on the market yet. Some startups are also staying independent and using partnerships to help them scale up, by hiring more staff, tackling tricky problems, and testing their technology on the road. One example of this is JingChi, one of the many startups that has received recent investment from the software company Nvidia. The Chinese self-driving car startup plans to use Nvidia’s investment to scale up R&D and make more hires in the United States.

Avoiding partnership potholes

The momentum around autonomy is undeniable. But successful partnerships require compromise and a great deal of thoughtful negotiation. Smart startups understand how much-established players need their technology – and seek to understand their perspective. Corporations, academia, and startups have notoriously different cultures. What can be done to forge great partnerships and keep them strong?

According to self-driving car startup Aurora, a “trusting and respectful relationship on both sides” is essential. “The goal for Aurora… is to get self-driving cars on the road as quickly as possible and do that safely and thoughtfully and do it through a partnership with the folks that can help us,” said the company’s CEO in a recent interview.

Network, network, network

Researchers and startups are rising to meet the challenge of autonomy – and in many cases, that means taking the big players up on their offer of resources. As long as corporations continue to put a high premium on self-driving car innovation, this new industry is going to blow past everyone’s expectations.

Are you a researcher, startup founder, tech transfer professional, or corporate tech scout? Check out seed and reach out to one of the innovative organizations in our network! You’re sure to find companies and research institutions working on self-driving cars and more exciting, emerging tech!


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