Top mobility VCs on the risks and rewards in partnering with giants like Amazon

At our recent TechCrunch Mobility event, we spoke with Amy Gu, the founder and managing partner of Hemi Ventures, Olaf Sakkers, a founding partner at Maniv Mobility and Reilly Brennan, the founding general partner at Trucks VC. We discussed a wide range of things, from frayed U.S.-China relations, to the mobility industry’s eager embrace of SPACs as a way to get capital-intensive companies into the public market.

We also talked partnerships. Specifically, we wanted to know how one determines whether a corporate leviathan that asks for information from a young startup — and maybe even invests in it — is really a friend or foe.

Our sense from the VCs is that mobility startups no longer have a choice but to partner with bigger and deeper-pocketed companies.

For example, Brennan wrote one of the first checks to autonomous shuttle company May Mobility and became its first board member. He suggested that the company, which has faced numerous engineering and operational challenges, had ambitions of going it alone when it was founded in 2017. At the time, other companies were operating in the world with apparent plans to remain independent, including self-driving software startups Cruise Automation and NuTonomy.

Today, Cruise is now a subsidiary of GM, and NuTonomy sold to automotive supplier Delphi four years after it launched. “If you were to [launch] a structured robo-taxi service today, it’s really hard to do without a big manufacturing partner,” said Brennan. Indeed, he went on to note that last December, Toyota Motor Corp. led a $50 million Series B round in May Mobility, advising attendees to “stay tuned” for the fruits of that partnership.

Gu agrees the “partner structure” is the path forward for startups and during the event cited numerous reasons why, including the fact that many of the larger companies in the automotive space have continued work nearly apace during the pandemic. She pointed to one of Hemi’s portfolio companies, Ample, a startup working on a battery-swapping technology that recently announced a partnership with Uber (which has committed to becoming a zero-emission platform by 2040).