NICK GIBBS

BMW exec combines Silicon Valley innovation with corporate rigor

Seidel says BMW has always given him outside-the-box challenges. When colleagues call him "exotic" he replies, "This is what I trained for."
Nick Gibbs is a UK correspondent for Automotive News Europe.
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German automotive companies began to publicly admit last year they needed to foster a work culture closer in spirit to Silicon Valley's. Robert Bosch Chairman Volkmar Denner spoke of a “lack of audacity” within Germany and declared: “We must learn that failure is not shameful.”

They might be rare, but disruptors do exist within German automotive companies. Markus Seidel, head of BMW’s advanced r&d office in Shanghai, China, is definitely one. It’s Seidel who oversees the company’s experimentation in new premium mobility revenue streams. That will be vital if the company is to remain relevant in a country where transportation trends emerge faster than anywhere else.

Seidel is the kind of innovator that automotive companies need: part Silicon Valley visionary, part loyal corporate player. When he was 16, he was already making money programing computers. After gaining a degree in robotics, he used his doctoral studies to explore the difference between evolution and revolution in product development. Although Seidel has worked his entire career at BMW he’s still found time to turn two of his digital ideas into stand-alone businesses.

He started at BMW in 1995 in product innovation, initially with the Rolls-Royce team that developed features such as the in-built umbrellas and starlight roof on the Phantom sedan, the first car developed under BMW’s ownership. After a stint at Mini, Seidel worked on BMW’s electric motorbikes. At times, however, he felt like he didn’t belong. “They put me on everything that was difficult and sometimes people would say, ‘You’re an exotic guy.’ I always replied, ‘This is what I trained for’.”

‘Change pressure’

Now his time has come. “There is so much change pressure that you see this mindset accelerating through the organization,” he said. For example, his advanced team can invent new mobility solutions without caring too much whether they will ever make money. “It’s nice not to have to worry about a business case,” he says. He gestured to a young Chinese staffer on his 20-person team. “When I was Andy’s age that wouldn’t have happened in a conventional automotive project. There was no startup culture, it didn’t exist.”

He was amazed when BMW’s head office agreed to bring journalists (including Automotive News Europe) to Shanghai to hear about a new project, the E3 Way elevated e-bike path. This is a concept without any automotive element, without a clear business case or without anything physical to show. “You sitting here is proof of how far the company has changed already in its thinking. Ten years ago, this would not be possible,” he said.

BMW’s Shanghai office doesn’t work alone. It forges partnerships for each project, for example, with universities, investment banks or small startups -- whichever suits the project best. This spreads the cost, reduces Seidel’s staffing levels, and gives him crucial access to local Chinese talent, which is plentiful.

“If you talk to venture capitalists, there are two places for pioneers: Silicon Valley and China,” he said. “The number of startups and technology projects here is unbelievably big. Every day hundreds of thousands of new companies are being created.”

His store of ideas is full enough to join them and succeed on his own if he wanted to. Seidel helped set up BMW’s Silicon Valley office and has plenty of contacts there. He talks about a friend with his own company who is consistently coming up with new business ideas.

But that’s not for him. As he says: “There are maybe 50 of these people globally who drive the pack ahead, who really take the risk. I don’t take the elemental risk.” He laughs, and adds: “I’m still German.”

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