Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Frank Moebius, Innovation Expert

Frank Moebius is Senior Innovation Advisor at UnternehmerTUM, a leading European center for innovation and business creation. Until June of this year, he was responsible for technology scouting and forecasting within the BMW Technology Office Munich of BMW Group’s research division. His team’s task was to identify, analyze and assess new technology trends from cross-industry and science and ensure their successful embedment within the BMW Group. Collaborating closely with all international BMW Technology Offices, including the BMW Startup Garage and the BMW R&D departments, he was the central technology matchmaker between external innovation and the company’s internal R&D needs. Moebius was previously responsible at BMW Group for series development of high voltage batteries and the industrialization of batteries and electric engines, and he worked in the Group’s human resources (HR) department. At the start of his career, he worked as a project engineer for Lufthansa developing innovative airport service vehicles at Frankfurt am Main. Moebius earned a diploma in mechanical engineering from the University of Stuttgart and a PhD from the University of Kaiserslautern in production automation and robotics. He recently spoke to The Innovator about what he has learned about innovating at a large established company.

Q: Let’s start with one of the tasks you were given early in your career at BMW. Electrification is a major change for the car industry. What were some of the challenges and how did you handle them?

Q: First there is the technology itself. We had to learn new technologies for the electric drive train that required new components like high voltage lithium-ion batteries and integration of these new components in cars. There were a lot of technical challenges. Secondly, the processes in the company regarding development had to be changed and it was necessary to build up new employee qualifications. The whole company had to understand the new components and how they are industrialized. Finally, BMW needed to ensure that their IP was saved and inhouse competence was built up so the company did not become too dependent on external know-how. There were also a lot of political obstacles. At the beginning not everyone in the company believed in electrification. They thought it was just hype so there was psychological and political work to do to bring important decisions to the fore. You need the support of the whole management team when you want to change things, which means dealing with different personalities and people who are worried about how change will impact their daily work and careers.

Q: How did you and your team win support for electrification?

FM: Our first PowerPoint slide, which was based on external and internal studies, showed that the electric drivetrain components bring not only CO2 reduction and efficiency increase, but also a lot of future business potential. But we had to go beyond that. BMW is all about the joy of driving. To convince top management we focused on proving how an electric car can bring so much joy. We equipped a MINI with an electric engine that we bought from a small specialist for power electronics and electric engines so the top management and the board members could experience the go kart feeling of an electric MINI and how fun it is to drive. We could have done a simulation, but it was cooler for them to experience it on the test track, in an actual BMW car.

Q: What has your experience taught you about open innovation?

FM: When you work with startups you begin to recognize and understand that in these times when lots of complex technologies are being developed at high speed, OEMs can’t solve all innovation challenges by themselves, they need support. In past we would turn to classical automotive suppliers these are mostly big companies but even they don’t have the capacity to keep up with all the complex new innovations. What we all need is to work with young, innovative and agile startups from all industries – not only automotive – who have great ideas. They help us to speed up innovation, on the other hand we can help them realize their ideas very quickly and offer these to millions of clients. It is all about speed and scalable volume.

The second thing this is that when embracing new ways of collaborating, large companies can learn how to emulate startup’s thinking and speed. At BMW Group, thanks to a senior vice president who understood this early on, the company launched BMW Startup Garage, an innovation hub that works with startups completely differently from the classical framework. BMW Startup Garage has its own budget, own methods, tools and processes and a different environment in a building 10 kilometers way from the R&D headquarters with its own management. It, of course, needs to report to management at BMW, but from the beginning it could work independently. The people running it were smart enough to realize that even when there is a possibility to work independently it is a good idea to integrate with internal departments early on so that when new technologies are transferred to the established organization you can avoid rejection due to a ‘not invented here’ attitude. If you involve internal departments in your projects from the very beginning, it works. That said it took two to three years for the acceptance of this way of working to spread all over the company.

Q: During your 27 years at BMW Group, you also worked in HR. It seems to me that this department also needs to be overhauled in the age of AI and quantum computing. What is your view?

FM: To succeed at electrification, autonomous driving, AI, quantum computing and being cyber-ready you need to be able to attract the best people. If you have HR people who understand the technical challenges and the needs of individual departments, you have a better chance of doing this. HR also needs to be more focused on developing the skills required for new kinds of careers. A few weeks ago, in a core plant in the heart of Munich, BMW produced its last car with a combustion engine. Going forward the plant will produce only electric vehicles. New skills and new HR strategies are needed if we are to be successful in this technological age. At the moment, BMW is running their biggest qualification initiative, called “Digital Boost” to make all employees ready for the digital transformation.

Q: Tell us about your new role at UnternehmerTUM

FM: UnternehmerTUM is an institution that I know very well from its fruitful collaboration with BMW in the past years. Part of my role at BMW was to be the liaison between the two. In that role I learned how important it is to have outside partners on open innovation. Now I am working on the other side of the street, moving from the corporate side to the entrepreneurship side. I bring with me the corporate point of view. I understand what corporates expect from startups. As a senior innovation advisor at the center, I will support UnternehmerTUM’s consulting offer for corporates. Some don’t have an innovation strategy, others need processes to build up an innovation hub or help taking a good idea and building it up into a new business. An important part of my role will also involve match making between corporates and startups.

Q: What advice would you give to companies that want to become more innovative?

FM: If you want to tackle a future field, like quantum computing, for example, and you realize that you don’t have the necessary qualifications and resources on board, then you could establish an open innovation team and give them the order to do technology and startup scouting and create new business ideas as an enablement of quantum computing for the whole company.

All this should be really supported by top management, not just by words but by resources and support even in the event of failures so that it can’t be killed from one day to the next. It requires tools, methods, and processing and – most important good internal communication as well as early involvement of all the departments and integrating them into your organization.

External communications are also helpful. BMW Startup Garage and the BMW Technology Trend Forecast are experts at good storytelling. When you combine these things with a new idea you will get the support of the whole company to get to a final product.

This article is content that would normally only be available to subscribers. Sign up for a four-week free trial to see what you have been missing.



About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.