GM launched a slew of new affiliates over the past year tackling electrification, connectivity and even insurance – all part of the automaker’s goal of finding value (and profit) beyond its traditional activity of manufacturing, selling and financing vehicles. These startups, many of which will never make the cut, are starting up under the leadership of VP of Innovation Pam Fletcher.
Fletcher, who joined TechCrunch on June 9 at the TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 virtual event, leads a group of 170 people developing and launching startups with a total addressable market of around $ 1.3 trillion.
Today, around 19 companies are moving through the incubator in hopes of joining recent GM startups like OnStar Guardian, OnStar Insurance, GM Defense and BrightDrop, the commercial electric vehicle delivery company launched in January. Not all will happen, Fletcher told the audience, noting “we’re adding new things all the time.”
Starting any startup presents challenges. But launching several startups within a 113-year-old automaker that employs 155,000 people worldwide is another, more complex matter. The bar, which determines whether these startups are ever launched publicly, is specific and high. A GM startup must be a new idea that can attract new customers and develop the total addressable market for the automaker, using existing assets and IP.
The Volt effect
The 2010 Chevrolet Volt is a milestone in GM’s timeline. The vehicle marked the company’s first commercial push in electrification since the EV1 program of the 1990s. Fletcher, who was the chief engineer of the Chevy Volt propulsion system from 2008 to 2011, noted that the Volt was the start of a shift within the automaker that eventually led to other commercial products, including the all-electric Chevy Bolt, the Super Cruise hands-free driver assistance system and its ongoing work on the development of autonomous vehicles with its subsidiary Cruise.
I don’t know if the Volt was exactly the root of what we see today. But I think that was definitely the start of a wave of thinking about how to quickly inject technology that customers get excited about and care about? How to involve them deeply in the process? … Which we have always done… just, I think there was a climate there where the appetite was so strong with a certain group of customers for the technology that it really got us a place at the first row with them, which was a game-changer for those of us on the front lines. And obviously there have been a lot of programs that have had this in their own way, but you really see it accelerating now with the advent of everything we do in electrification and self-reliance and a portfolio that has just emerged. even to the notion of applying some of these great technologies to our new full-size programs, trucks and SUVs. So it’s very broad, based on the whole company, which is exciting. (Timestamp: 4:56)
Fletcher explained how working to bring new technology to market has changed the way the company interacts with customers.
With new technologies, we sometimes find new customers. So really understand what this client is like and put him at the center of everything. In addition, different technologies have different development processes, schedules, and activity pipelines. So that really allowed us to start thinking about how to approach each stage of our product development and customer engagement differently. And the Volt was also an interesting time, as it was the advent of new social media that was really starting to get a lot more popular. And so we were very connected with those customers and a great customer base that gave us huge feedback very directly, you know, through back then, which was a new channel. (Timestamp: 3:50)