When Swiss-based global technology company TE Connectivity went in search of a sponsorship opportunity, the classic conference and stadium gigs didn't seem like the right fit.
Execs wanted to showcase the company's products and applications, not just slap its name on an event. So they turned to car racing—what seemed like the ideal platform to demonstrate the capabilities of its connectors, sensors, and cables. Along the way, they found Simona de Silvestro, who this week became the first full-time female driver for the FIA Formula E Championship race series.
The Andretti Formula E team announced Monday that de Silvestro will pilot the No. 28 Amlin Andretti ATEC-01 all-electric race car in the series that begins in October. De Silvestro, of Switzerland, has raced in the IndyCar Series for the past few seasons and was a former Formula 1 test driver. Formula E is a new FIA championship featuring Formula cars powered exclusively by electric energy.
A STEM Opportunity
TE Connectivity, which generates $12 billion in annual sales, was introduced to de Silvestro in the lead-up to the Indianapolis 500 in May. TE Connectivity (tel) was the primary sponsor of the No.29 car—one of five entries by the Andretti Autosport team at the annual Indy car racing event. TE Connectivity's connectors, sensors, and cables were also in every Andretti Autosport Indy car.
Company execs had their choice of a few drivers, Amy Shah, chief marketing officer at TE Connectivity, told Fortune. De Silvestro had a good reputation on the race circuit and is from Switzerland, where TE Connectivity is based. Her racing chops mattered. But TE Connectivity also saw a larger opportunity in de Silvestro.
"As a technology and engineering company we want women and girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)," Shah says. "For us, she’s a symbol, an example that there are exciting women doing exciting things and we wanted to partner up with her. She’s one of those people who you want to succeed."
While de Silvestro has received attention as one of the few women in racing—and only one of two to compete at this year's Indy 500—she doesn't identify herself as a female driver phenom.
"She just sees herself as a race car driver," Shah says. "I don't think she realizes how rare she is."
After the Indy 500, de Silvestro raced in a TE Connectivity-sponsored electric car at the Formula E season finale in London. She was one of three women who drove cars during the inaugural season of the Formula E racing series. However, de Silvestro is the only female, so far, who has landed a full-time contract for this season.
— Simona De Silvestro (@simdesilvestro) August 17, 2015
Formula E, which is only in its second year, aims to serve as a framework for research and development around electric vehicles, generate interest in the cars, and promote clean energy and sustainability. The global racing series launched in September 2014 in Beijing and was held in nine other cities.
Last year, all teams used the same single-seater cars designed and built by Spark Racing Technology along with partners McLaren, Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd., Dallara Automobili, Renault and Michelin. This race season, teams can work with manufacturers to develop their own cars. All of the cars will still use the same battery.
The 2015-16 season kicked off this month with a series of two-day tests. The first race will be Oct. 17 in Beijing. The series will hold races in Putrajaya, Malaysia; Punta del Este, Uruguay; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Long Beach, Calif.; Paris; Berlin; Moscow; and London.
Advancing EV Tech
In Formula E, the stakes are higher—and potentially more valuable—for TE Connectivity. The connectors, which transfer power (and eventually data) through the vehicle, as well as the cables will have to handle the increased power loads generated by the battery of the electric car.
Today, each team needs two cars to complete a race. The goal is for technology to advance enough that a single electric car can be used for the entire race.
In June 2015, TE Connectivity partnered with Andretti Technologies, the advanced technology arm of Andretti Autosport. The two companies will work on R&D in several areas, including the battery, electric motor, inverter, and chassis.
Advances on the R&D side, as well as the real-world application of racing an electric car, should eventually lead to more efficient power management.
Sensors, which automatically manage power, heat, and other aspects of the car, are at an earlier stage of development. The company is even tinkering around with the idea of putting sensors in de Silvestro's suit. Shah says that idea is being tested at the company's wearables lab in Menlo Park, Calif.
"Our focus with Andretti is to help them win more races. It’s really that simple," Shah says. "The higher intent for this whole partnership is to advance electric vehicle technology."