New materials and integrating car and driver a part of the US automaker's innovation vision – as is taking bets on young startups, says Kent Helfrich.

The conversation about the future of transport often focuses on the science – autonomy, electrification and apps. But cars are also still about art, says Kent Helfrich, chief technology officer of auto manufacturer General Motors. At heart, he explains, cars are a fashion industry.

“It’s a technology industry, a heavy industry, a durable goods industry, but it is all about how good you look in that car,” Helfrich tells Global Venturing. “You identify as a pickup truck guy, or a Corvette person, or a Chevy Trailblazer person. People project themselves into these vehicles.

“It’s still very much an art and design-led proposition,” he adds. “So, between now and completely shared and generic transport, there’s still this very long generational thing of ‘I love this thing that I drive around, and it’s really sexy and interesting’.

“That leads us to have to invest in really awesome materials and display technologies, and methods of integrating the driver into the vehicle, passengers into the vehicle and the vehicle into the environment around it. And that means GM Ventures has a lot of work to do.”

Helfrich, a long-time GM employee, took on the CTO role in 2021, around the same time the carmaker announced a goal of zero emissions, zero crashes and zero congestion. It’s a snappy slogan but a tough target for those, like Helfrich, charged with turning it into a reality. It means having to look at everything from electrification and battery technology to autonomous driving or cybersecurity software, and combining internal research with startup investments.

Helfrich’s role is relatively unique in that he isn’t just its CTO, he also heads up corporate venture unit GM Ventures.

“It’s important to have an integrated technology plan,” Helfrich says. “It’s really critical to have a continuum of thought across GM Ventures, R&D and corporate development, and have a very collegial but execution-focused relationship.

“Ventures is work, and it takes a lot of energy to maintain the very strong business processes that protect the enterprise and the very agile and radically transparent business processes that support the startup.”

“We can’t depend on getting all the answers ourselves from our internal R&D organisation,” Helfrich explains. “We want to go out and find the best technology, thinkers, people who are breaking paradigms and thinking divergently about the things we have to do.”

The idea is to balance large-scale deals, such as GM’s $3.5bn investment in self-driving software developer Cruise and its $650m backing of lithium supplier Lithium Americas, with $5m to $10m commitments by GM Ventures in early-stage rounds.

The unit seeks out startups that can form partnerships with General Motors, though how that works can vary: ‘soft’ technology can be integrated into IT systems more easily than hardware can be used in vehicles, simply because of the length of vehicle development timelines.

“For GM Ventures, we’re really looking for the companies that have an idea that has been proven enough that we can verify their claims,” Helfrich says. “It doesn’t have to be a fully developed product, but it has to be something that we can bring into our organisation and test the hypothesis, test the product if it’s a hard tech item, and see if what they’re claiming is really making sense.

“We intend to be these startups’ first and best automotive customer”

“The key thing for us, though, is that we intend to be these startups’ first and best automotive customer. And that means we’re going to bring our capabilities, our background IP, our know-how and our product to bear on what they want to have done.”

Startups can also get access to GM’s industrial technology knowledge base, with an expert in more or less every subject across GM Ventures and its R&D division. At the same time, however, Helfrich and his team are careful to protect the startups from some of the processes of the parent company.

“Corporate development has lawyers and every large organisation has business processes which protect the large entity,” Helfrich says. “If you bring all those business processes to be solely focused on a startup, the result is inevitably destruction, either destruction of the value or closure of the relationship.

“One of the key things GM Ventures and R&D do is insulate the startup from some of the business processes which are protecting the large enterprise. This is the absolute most critical thing that we do, and that enables this relationship to grow and to develop without the constraints of the large enterprise business processes.”

Female driver pushing a button on the dashboard of a car

GM does not invest in companies with the intention of an actual acquisition, Helfrich says, but it aims to get in early and its status as that big first customer gives it a degree of sway. Getting that level of business at, say, series A stage, can make a big difference for a startup.

“We will ask for a certain amount of exclusivity, or maybe some of our design cues need to get in, and we will help make that happen,” he says. “But in the end, it’s typically to our benefit for the technologies to be massively deployed across not only the whole automotive industry but in other sectors as well. You talk to a founder, and they start realising you’re serious about using it within the enterprise right now.”

There are plenty of examples of these partnerships across the portfolio. Tula Tech’s dynamic fuel management technology has been inserted into more than 2 million GM vehicles, Clarity is protecting its manufacturing centres from cyber attacks, UVeye’s digital inspection system is used in the company’s dealerships and RapidDeploy’s emergency response platform is integrated with GM’s OnStar in-car electronics systems.

“My goal is to accelerate and amplify everything that we’re doing here,” Helfrich says. “This is the best job in the company, and I’m really in awe of the value that we’re delivering.”

All images courtesy of General Motors