OEMs and startups: The incubator at Jaguar Land Rover HQ

The first question you might have when learning that Jaguar Land Rover has its technology headquarters in Portland, OR, is, “Why?” There’s an easy answer for that question, said Rupert Poole, Senior Collaborations Manager of Future Technology at the facility in Portland. JLR, as it’s known, already had a relationship with Intel, and Intel is located in a Portland suburb. There’s also a thriving startup culture in Portland, and it’s not hard to travel up and down the West Coast to other tech hubs.

The first JLR facility in Portland, the Open Software Technology Center, opened in July 2014. The nearby JLR Tech Incubator opened six months later and a third building next door to the incubator, the collaborative lab, is undergoing renovations to create space for test chambers and vehicle bays. I got to tour all three — including the very much not-yet-completed lab.

While about a hundred JLR engineers are working on infotainment and connectivity tech to be tested in simulators and eventually introduced into Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles, a handful of startups are down the street developing new technology that may or may not end up being used by the British automaker. All engineers, whether they’re JLR employees or startups, have access to collaborative brainstorming spaces — with walls you can write on and buckets of LEGOs.

The incubator hosts 12 startups each year for six-month periods. “We found that three months is too short,” says Danielle Alexander, the manager of the incubator. The teams get access to space, funding, tools and equipment — including Jaguars and Land Rovers — partnerships, mentors and engineering and technology expertise from the JLR staff.

Like other OEMs that want to work with startups, the JLR Incubator is looking for small teams that have more agility and speed than a century-old automotive manufacturer. It’s also looking for technologies that dovetail with automotive needs rather than overlap, such as augmented reality, connected car, human-machine interface (HMI) and data visualization technologies.

When I visited the facility, I met with the half-dozen startups currently in residence. One, Carfit, is developing a technology directly applicable to the auto industry. Its small, puck-shaped devices attach to the steering wheel and monitor all of its shakes, wobbles and corrections. In the same way that (some) drivers can tell the car is out of alignment or the shocks need replacing, Carfit analyzes the information from the steering wheel and sends the diagnosis to an app.

But not every startup in the incubator has such a direct relationship to the automotive industry. Take Neptune, which is developing a streaming, curated video service for kid-friendly, interactive, educational content. In a connected car, kids could pick and choose and stream at will without the parent in the driver’s seat needing to monitor their every choice. Or SicDrone, a drone that can pivot its rotors for maneuverability or remain stable while flying in wind. This could come in handy when scouting for emergency response or to looking ahead at an uncharted off-road course — something Land Rover drivers have been known to take.

“Infotainment and connectivity are the only parts of a car where consumer expectations are set against other technologies,” Poole said. “All other expectations are set versus automotive technology.” By bringing the cutting edge of connectivity into the incubator, where startups work with the local engineers and have access to 10,000 JLR engineers worldwide, a decades-old company gets access to the latest innovations.