STARTUP AUTOBAHN: Working at Europe’s biggest mobility platform for startups

Hello! My name is Philipp Gneiting, and I’m the leader of the Open Innovation team in the Development department. Together with my team, I’m responsible for a number of programs, including the STARTUP AUTOBAHN. We bring together startups and our Daimler colleagues to work on cooperative projects.

Today I’d like to tell you exactly what that means and what our daily work looks like. It will be my pleasure to take you along to spend a day with our team. But before we start, here’s some basic information you should know. 

The STARTUP AUTOBAHN is an intermediary platform between experts at Daimler and innovative startups. By finding partners, initiating projects, and supervising the 100-day cooperation phase, the platform offers Daimler a way to quickly evaluate and make decisions about the multifaceted technological developments in the startup scene. We look at the entire value chain, because we’re interested in visionary startups with ideas that are relevant to the future-oriented themes of our company. When we find intriguing startups, we try to match them up with the right specialist units at the Group.

We use what we call the “venture client approach” — early cooperation with a startup in order to embed new technologies and business models as quickly as possible in our products or our internal processes. The research factory ARENA2036 at the University of Stuttgart in Vaihingen is our headquarters for startups. It offers workstations, conference rooms, and a workshop area where participants can even build prototypes if necessary. The cofounder Plug and Play is here too, and is strongly involved during the entire program, especially in the search for startups and organizational tasks. That was the theoretical part — and now our day can begin.

8:45 – 9 a.m. The STARTUP AUTOBAHN Daily

The day begins with our STARTUP AUTOBAHN Daily, a short morning meeting of the STARTUP AUTOBAHN team, during which we share ideas and talk about what needs to be done that day. We always orient ourselves in line with the three phases of the project: startup scouting, the 100-day program, and the implementation phase. The most important topic is the following question: Which project will be the next one to make it into series production, so that we can add another startup logo to our “Wall of Fame”?

The STARTUP AUTOBAHN team — back row, from left: Philipp Gneiting, Jasmin Scharf, Kristina Michl, Anna Wilhelmi, Constanze Cuellar Lopez, Felix Köppenkastrop-Lüker

10 a.m. A discussion between all the STARTUP AUTOBAHN locations

STARTUP AUTOBAHN became an international network soon after it was founded. Shortly after it was launched in Germany, Daimler colleagues all over the world also set up STARTUP AUTOBAHN programs at their own locations. In order to stay abreast of international developments, we share information with all of our partners at regular intervals — and that’s what we’re doing today. Here we talk about the most promising startups we’ve found recently and about the upcoming meetings in the individual programs. Participating in this discussion are our international STARTUP AUTOBAHN colleagues from the fields of development, production, IT, Lab 1886, and marketing in China, Bangalore, Singapore, South Africa, and the USA. What’s especially exciting for me is finding out how the STARTUP AUTOBAHN operates in various cultures and the different units that are participating. Our high level of intercultural cooperation and cross-unit work is really impressive!

11 a.m. The kickoff of the current 100-day program at a meeting with the project leaders

After a partnership between a startup and a specialist unit at Daimler has been decided on, the 100-day program begins. Our job is to make sure that the startup’s full potential is exploited during the pilot phase and to support our specialist units. 100 days? I admit this is not a long period of time for a major company like Daimler. That’s why it’s important to guide the projects in the right direction, especially at the start, and to cooperate with our colleagues from Procurement or Legal Affairs to create the right conditions so that the projects can start doing their specialized work as son as possible. That’s the topic of today’s kickoff meeting with all the project leaders. After the pilot projects have been successfully concluded, the projects will be presented on Expo Day, where we expect to welcome about 1,000 visitors from the fields of industry, research, and the media. It always feels great to see how much can be accomplished in 100 days if the right people are all pulling together in the same direction.

1 p.m. A round of interviews with the startups

But now let’s take another step back: How do the startups form partnerships with our Daimler experts in order to do project work? We organize this by making sure that the right startups get to know the right Daimler colleagues in person. At today’s meeting, we’re going to look at five startups from the human resources unit, who will present their innovative solutions for recruiting. Some colleagues from various Daimler HR units will be participating so that the startups can be evaluated by experts in this field.

But the actual work has already been done in recent weeks. Together with our partner Plug and Play, we attend startup trade fairs, search through startup databases, and make use of personal contacts in order to find the best possible startup partners for the various search areas of the specialist Daimler units. Usually it’s not a challenge to find enough suitable startups. The real challenge is to identify the best startups from a group of 100 candidates. And because we want great startups from every corner of the planet to come to us in Stuttgart for an introductory meeting, we’ve devised a unique event that will help us get to know each other.

Thanks to the combination of many major industrial partners on our platform, we’re able to motivate startups — many of which are being actively courted — to come to Stuttgart for an initial discussion. At these monthly meetings, which we call “Deep Dives,” we enable our specialists at Daimler to meet the 10 or 15 most interesting startups that match their search criteria. At the meetings, we examine the unique selling points of the startups in detail and discuss possible use cases for the Daimler specialist units. If there’s a good match, the next step is to form a pilot project aimed at determining whether the idea in question is suitable for series production. At today’s meeting with our colleagues from HR, the feedback was great. We’ll have follow-up meetings with several of the startups who made presentations, and we’ll discuss potential pilot projects with them.

5 p.m. A meeting with the development unit in order to organize the next program

One crucial factor for the success of the STARTUP AUTOBAHN is the close cooperation with our specialist units. Our Daimler colleagues are the experts here, and they already play a big role in the search for suitable startups. They’re the ones who know their units and their search criteria best, and they know exactly where the problems lie. Together with specialist units for development, production, human resources etc., in the first step we determine which theme fields are relevant to very “acute” problems, or we define these theme fields together in creative workshops.

We are currently focusing intensely on startups that are compatible with the campaign we call “THE NEXT GREEN THING.” We’re looking for new technologies and concepts that can support our company, our products, and our processes in the area of sustainability. If such a partnership is successful, it’s a win-win-win situation: good for Daimler, the startup, and our environment. And to make sure everything runs smoothly, during this final meeting of the day we consider what search criteria we should use for our scouting activities and on which possible dates we can bring together the startups we find and the Daimler specialist units. As you can imagine, every successfully completed STARTUP AUTOBAHN program is immediately followed by the next one.


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Dr. Philipp Gneiting is the head of the Open Innovation team at Daimler PIONEERING. In addition to the STARTUP AUTOBAHN (www.startup-autobahn.com), he is also responsible for research communication, the Daimler Pioneers & Innovation Award, and other Open Innovation formats such as the Mercedes-Benz In-Car Gaming Challenge (http://www.in-car-gaming.com/).