Today, BMW announced the planned creation of a tech incubator in New York City to seed innovations in mobile and location-based services. The announcement follows the automaker’s establishment in February of a venture capital company, BMW i Ventures, with an investment fund of as much as $100 million, and serves as yet another indication that BMW is turning its eye toward the mobile startup scene.
Oh, and they’ll still make cars, too.
But while such a strategy has obvious benefits in an industry increasingly looking to merge vehicles with high-end tech (BMW’s iPhone integration, Ford SYNC, Hyundai’s iPad owner’s manual), the automaker is clear that it’s not expecting to invest only in technology applicable to automobiles.
“As a mobility company, we are focusing on mobility services that may not even have anything to do with cars,” says Joerg Reimann, a managing director of BMW i Ventures. “We’re not coming at this from a car [perspective], we’re coming from a consumer [perspective].”
That’s partly why the company chose to set up shop in New York City. It could be considered ironic that BMW settled on a city known for its public transit, but according to Alexander Diehl, another MD at the venture fund, the Big Apple serves as the ideal case-study for mobile tech. “We’re interested in things that actually help you get around in cities, [and] New York creates some interesting challenges for mobility,” he says. “There are some people who are commuters and other people are living in Manhattan without [cars].”
Such a dense urban space helps seed very unique innovations, he says. Think of all the technology that has spawned from these–much of which has applications in the auto industry, from Zipcar to UberCab. It’s no surprise that distinctly mobile services such as GroupMe and Foursquare were founded New York. Diehl says he’s interested in new ways to look at traffic, parking, entertainment, the interlinking of different transportation modes, and places where “the digital meets the offline space.”
“As megacities become bigger, people have mobility needs, but they satisfy them in different ways,” says Bernhard Blaettel, director of project mobility services at BMW AG. “So there’s two possibilities here. We could say as BMW, we are cars, we are the ultimate driving machine; let’s hope we’ll still be successful 20 years from now; let’s not look left and right. Or, we say no. We have also always been innovative–trying to shape the future–so let’s not ignore what’s happening but deliberately go into this space and see what we can contribute here and transfer our ideas and brand value in the field of [mobile] services.”
That’s not to say BMWs (and cars for that matter) are going away anytime soon. “It doesn’t mean we’re convinced cars are going to become less important,” Blaettel says. “We just think that in some areas they may be used in a different context.”
BMW i Ventures is currently looking for a space to set up its tech incubator in New York City. In terms of its available funding, BMW says it will determine investments in each startup on case-by-case basis.
[Image by Andrew Hur]