Why the Auto Industry May Need a Different Kind of Venture Capital

October 28, 2016, 3:42 PM UTC
Pilot models of the Uber self-driving car is displayed at the Uber Advanced Technologies Center on September 13, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Uber launched a groundbreaking driverless car service, stealing ahead of Detroit auto giants and Silicon Valley rivals with technology that could revolutionize transportation. / AFP / Angelo Merendino (Photo credit should read ANGELO MERENDINO/AFP/Getty Images)
Angelo Merendino — AFP/Getty Images

The automotive industry is in the midst of transforming itself into the “mobility” industry, a phenomenon I wrote about in a recent Fortune cover story, “Some Assembly Required.” That transformation is going to require a lot more interconnectivity that the industry is used to. It’s going to require “coop-etition,” and breaking down silos in the industry.

It’s something the tech industry is pretty accustomed to, but it’s relatively new to the executives in Detroit. What’s more, thus far, the industry has made big bets in a few places, like General Motors’ acquisition of Cruise Automation, rather than spreading the risk across many bets in many areas. Meanwhile, startups are often wary of corporates. Taking a check from one may prevent them from working with a competitor, or worse, their investor may become a competitor. (Exhibit A: Google’s venture investment in Uber.)

That’s why Thomas F. Wendt and Mark Platshon have created a new firm called Icebreaker Ventures. It’s unique for two reasons: For one, it’s a “multi-corporate” fund, meaning, rather than traditional LPs, Icebreaker will raise from strategic corporations. And two, it is focused on startups in the “ACES” categories. That’s an auto-industry acronym for autonomous, connected, electric, and shared. Basically, all the car buzzwords except “flying.” Icebreaker is meant to connect the auto industry’s two sides–corporates and startups–in a mutually beneficial way.



Wendt, who previously co-led Roland Berger’s automotive practice and has spent time at AlixPartners and Audi, tells me he created the multi-corporate structure when he realized that all of the players in the transportation industry – insurance, suppliers, technology, utilities (for electric cars), automakers – would need to work closely together to build the future. “You can’t work in your silos anymore,” he says. His co-founder, Platshon, is a partner at Birchmere Ventures and has been an advisor to BMWi Ventures for several years. Icebreaker Ventures will be based in Palo Alto.

I’m only aware of one other venture firm using a similar multi-corporate strategy, and that’s Autotech Ventures, which raised $45 million towards a $150 million fund earlier this year.

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