Cool Car Tech: Innovation From Portland, Parked In Your Driveway

June 14, 2016

Matt Jones drives to work every day in a car with experimental features you will probably never, ever see in a production vehicle. That’s one of the perks he can claim as the director of future technology for Jaguar Land Rover.

But his car – a black Land Rover LR4 – is also chock-full of tech that absolutely will make it to the market. And it’s the job of Jones and his team at the Jaguar Land Rover Tech Incubator in Portland, Oregon, to get those features into cars at a pace their customers have come to expect.

“In the past, the customer’s expectations were on automotive timescales – it would take three to four years sometimes to produce the products,” said Jones. “But now the expectation is, ‘If I liked it and downloaded it yesterday, will it work with my vehicle today?’”

It’s not just Jaguar Land Rover that wants to meet that expectation, but also its parent company Tata Motors – part of the Tata group of companies – that has invested in propagating new technology through its brands. The Tata group is a global enterprise, headquartered in India, comprising over 100 independent companies with operations in more than 100 countries. The group also maintains a strong focus on investments in innovative technologies to develop new products and services. Those investments include the tech incubator that Jones leads in Portland, which came out of a 2012 West Coast visit to meet with Intel, one of their strategic partners.Matt Jones

During that trip, Jones and his team also had conversations with startups up and down the coast, many of which felt their products have a place in Jaguar Land Rover’s vehicles. Recognizing that these nimble, innovating enterprises had a lot to offer, the company established its Portland campus to facilitate collaboration.

“In July 2013, we opened the first office with 40 desks, and we thought that would be enough for 10 years,” said Jones. “Within six months, the center was full, and we had more startups than we could support at that point. But we wanted to collaborate with them all.”

The incubator itself was devised to identify, support, and help grow startups whose products could benefit Jaguar Land Rover and other divisions of Tata Group. With plans to welcome three companies into the first cohort, Jones opened the doors to hopeful entrepreneurs in October 2015.

“We had well over 100 applications,” he said. “We shortlisted that to 20, then to 10. Then we had to go through the incredibly hard selection process to get down to the final three.”

Incubatees receive workspace, mentoring, a $250,000 direct investment, and a six-month partnership with Jaguar Land Rover. New cohorts will be brought in every quarter.

“We have committed to at least 120 companies over the next 10 years,” said Jones. “At the moment we have more than 150 desks in Portland for Jaguar Land Rover and another 50 for innovators and entrepreneurs.”

The first cohort includes parking facilitator ParkIt and Urban.Systems, which supports electric vehicle infrastructure. Those are clearly car-oriented, but the third sounds like a bit of a head-scratcher.

“BabyBit?” Jones said with a chuckle. “You’re absolutely right, it’s not obvious. When I announced internally we were investing in a baby wearables company, people didn’t get it.”

BabyBit’s infant products transmit data to a caregiver’s smart device: the child’s temperature, heart rate, breathing rate, location. Jones likens it to “a Find My iPhone app for the next generation of infants.” And to his team, its usefulness in a car was clear.

“Imagine you’re in the middle of a Minnesota winter,” he said. “You put the bundled-up baby in the rear, and then you’ll probably take off your jacket and set the temperature so you’re comfortable. There’s a possibility that the child in back is still wrapped up for -40 degree weather in a 68 degree vehicle – they can’t turn the temperature down and can’t say they’re uncomfortable.”

So imagine your car being able to tell you the kid’s situation, so you can address it right away. That’s the kind of adaptation Jones and his team are looking for in the startups they’re considering for their tech incubator.

“We have a great team here with a lot of expertise in automotive and other features,” he said. “We understand the tech the startup is putting forward, and if we can imagine ourselves using that tech on the way to work in the morning, or at work, or on public transportation after work, then it’s playing a part in our daily lives.”

And because people potentially lose a lot of time in their cars, Jones and his team want to help people recapture that time in ways that are safe and intuitive by incorporating technologies that help them do so. Given the reach of Tata Group, the cumulative amount of hours given back to those people is probably incalculable. And for Jones, that’s just a start.

“We’re growing, we’re working with a huge number of startups, and we’re going to be working with even more external companies,” he said. “I think the future’s looking very healthy for Jaguar Land Rover and the Tata Group, in general.”