These “tech scouts” are chasing the next big thing in technology. This is how they do it


Experts say it doesn’t matter how big a company is: every company should set aside a budget for technology discovery.

Image: Issouf Sanogo / AFP / Getty Images

Oliver Wick, who works at BMW’s Munich office, has a rather unusual job title: as a “Technology Scout”, he is responsible for scanning the strange and wonderful world of emerging technologies, and evaluating those that have the potential to enhance the car giant. business model.

His annual goals? In his own words, “to bring innovation to BMW”. And Wick is just one part of a strategy developed by BMW over the years to grow the discovery of new technologies through business, in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the competition.

The car company has “Technology Offices” spread around the world, where experts like Wick are tasked with identifying significant innovations and generating trend reports for use cases from car production to smart city services.

SEE: Innovation is difficult. Here are five ways to make it easier

To help with their work, BMW’s teams are equipped with “Technical Radar” – a special software that collects and analyzes data from R&D, patents, markets, risk and other sources, to provide a broad view of emerging technologies of interest. and of their level of maturity.

Once promising innovation is identified, technology scouts are expected to network with start-ups and universities working in the field and come up with proofs of concepts. Once these have been greened out, these technologies can be handed over to the central business.

To expand the technical discovery process, BMW has also created a “Startup Garage” to encourage smaller organizations with a good idea to present their presentation, with the promise of a contract with the car company for those selected.

And even inside, BMW has deployed an accelerator program. “If someone in the buying department has a great idea that has nothing to do with buying, we want to accelerate that,” Wick tells ZDNet.

Wick is currently working on incorporating quantum computing into BMW’s business model – a technology identified by the technical radar in 2017, which has aroused the interest of the company’s top experts. BMW is now organizes a crowdfunding challenge to invite start-ups and researchers to submit ideas for quantum algorithms this could possibly solve problems such as dislocation on vehicles or material deformation during production.

“Our goal is to find the hidden companies, organizations, or individuals that we wouldn’t find by traditional means,” says Wick.

BMW is not the only company investing in the discovery of new technologies. Another example is energy producer Enel, which currently boasts of “New Hubs” in 10 cities around the worldall designed to discover start-ups and small organizations whose technology could eventually serve Enel’s own business interests.

Among the many partnerships established by the energy company is Form Energy, for example, a start-up that is developing low-cost, long-lasting batteries that can be combined with renewable energy sources. Enel is actively investing in Form Energy and providing the start-up with leadership to grow its product.

SMEs and innovation

BMW and Enel are examples of huge, deep-pocketed companies that have dedicated significant budgets to technology discovery. But smaller companies should not rule out investing in innovation.

“I don’t think small and medium-sized companies have the luxury of doing such an R&D element that a company like BMW can afford,” Philip Dawson, vice president of Gartner Research, tells ZDNet. “But they’re smarter because they don’t have the same heritage and they don’t have the same scale of complexity. They look more like the speedboat than the tanker.”

For Dawson, it doesn’t matter how big a company is: every company should set aside a budget for technology discovery. This is because regardless of size, investing in innovation is what could make the difference between a firm that is stagnant and one that is growing.

SEE: The CIO’s new challenge: Make the case for the next big thing

Budgeting in the short term and targeting measurable return on investment (ROI) remain key. But Dawson argues that organizations should also remember the “far horizon,” which comes with higher risks but much better rewards.

“You have to understand and track what’s great, what’s emerging, and then see where you can innovate,” Dawson says. “The next horizon is higher risk, but it will really lead you to a new business opportunity and enable real growth.”

For example, a recent study by the Harvard Business Review analyzed data from a multinational oil company. to assess whether the company’s efforts in R&D have paid off. After reviewing 7,000 drilling projects, examining the career history for more than 30,000 engineers and conducting interviews with managers and executives, the researchers found that the company spent billions of dollars on R&D annually and generated nearly 10,000 patents. This has led to a 15% decrease in bork costs, saving an average of $ 90 million a year per subsidiary.

However, many companies are struggling to see the value of dedicating money to exotic sound technologies – think quantum computing, but also hydroponics or 3D printing, to self-healing materials or smart textiles.

Looking at long-term trends, researchers have found that since the 1980s, U.S. companies have reduced spending on basic science, research, and engineering. A more recent KPMG survey highlighted that innovation teams within organizations are still small, with 38% of respondents reported that their teams are smaller than 10 people.

The pandemic effect

It’s easy to see why companies would be reluctant to invest in emerging technologies when there is no assurance that they will ever see the value of their money in business value. But according to Dawson, mindsets are changing rapidly – largely due to the huge transformations that have been forced on businesses in recent months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health crisis has driven business skills as organizations have struggled to adapt to new ways of working, and this has also translated into budgeting skills. In other words, companies have realized that unlocking money to transform their operations could create huge benefits. Case in point: Dawson noted that Gartner surveys during the pandemic had grown by 30% in volume.

Now that companies are in the recovery, Dawson is convinced that the gap will widen between companies that continue to invest in innovation and those that decide to go back to their old ways.

“Even though you have to think about recovery and stability, I still think a lot of innovation is tied to embryonic emerging technology and taking advantage of that. If you don’t do that, you’re not recovering to the same level,” he says.

“You can’t play safely right now. You can’t just repeat.”

So what’s next? It’s one thing to set aside a budget for innovation, but it takes more than spending to bolster the chances of finding game-changing technology. The Harvard Business Review researchers found that there is no statistically significant relationship between a firm’s investment in basic, research R&D and its market value.

The only time this relationship could be established, the researchers said, was when the business established a well-defined innovation strategy in addition to investment. Indicators included the presence of teams tasked specifically with innovation and incubation, or the amount of public communications about innovation conducted by the business.

Innovative finding tools

Setting up a strategy to discover emerging technologies might seem like a daunting task, especially for smaller organizations, but a growing number of tools are now being built to help. Merger flowfor example, it is a German-based start-up that automates the process of hunting for innovation.

“People come to us because they know there’s something going on,” Florian Wolf, the founder of Mergeflow, told ZDNet. “It’s almost everything on the net, but you can’t collect and analyze all the data on your own. It takes too long. You need automation to do that.”

Mergeflow’s software, which was used by BMW to build the company’s technology radar, scans thousands of scientific and technology publications, patents, news, market analysis, investment activities and other data on a daily basis. Users can search for a concept or category and instantly access hundreds of possible innovations related to their question.

The company’s algorithm also looks at start-ups and companies working on each specific innovation to find out how mature they are, based on data such as risk funding or collaborations with other researchers and inventors. It can also estimate market sizes for a particular company or innovation.

According to Wolf, the appetite for Mergeflow software is growing rapidly. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company relied on a traditional corporate sales model that attracted mostly large firms. But since then, Mergeflow’s engineers have developed a low-cost sales service. According to Wolf, the number of smaller, less-heard organizations that have signed a lawsuit has grown.

“You can discover things you otherwise wouldn’t even know existed,” says Wolf. “It can really pull you forward or shoot you out of the pool if you miss it.

“The pace of development across technology fields is really high right now. It’s not just a risk – it’s almost certain you’ll be late if you don’t.”

On a seemingly quiet day in the office, Wolf recalls, he tried to use Mergeflow to find innovation in the most unexcited field he could think of. He finished typing “shock absorbers” into the software – and it wasn’t long before he found himself reading about ClearMotiona start-up that develops a software-controlled engine equipped with sensors that collect data on road conditions.

ClearMotion is developing a platform, which means it could enable other businesses to innovate in addition to their services. “This is a field where no one would ever expect innovation,” Wolf says.

The lesson, Wolf argues, is that if innovation can still happen with shock absorbers, then it’s hard to think of a reason why it couldn’t transform any other business. It may be time to start re-editing your annual budget.

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