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Infiniti Lab: where a carmaker drives ideas to become businesses of the future

Infiniti’s accelerator programmes aims to nurture innovative firms that will help the carmaker create new products and services to meet aggressive growth targets

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2018, 9:15am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 8:22pm

Having an innovative company is the dream of most top executives. Three years ago, Dane Fisher, who was managing director for Infiniti Asia and Oceania, approached his boss, Infiniti global president Roland Krueger, about setting up a corporate accelerator programme as a way to achieve that. That programme is now known as Infiniti Lab, based in Hong Kong along with Infiniti’s global headquarters.

The idea is straightforward: engage start-ups for a time-limited mentorship/investment-training programme, and then partner or invest in those that best help create new products or services. Yet three years on, Fisher has found that it’s more complicated than that.

Three rounds of accelerator programmes have been conducted in Hong Kong, aimed at companies in the early stages of development. The Lab has also added start-up weekends for potential entrepreneurs and integration programmes for advanced companies looking to scale up.

Luxury carmaker Infiniti targets future ‘unicorns’ with new start-up accelerator programme

Of the 37 companies that have been through the accelerator programme in Hong Kong, Fisher says Infiniti is working with nine. The Hong Kong accelerator welcomes start-ups from around the world; through a “hub and spoke” approach in which Infiniti accelerators in Toronto, Taiwan, Singapore and Beijing supply potential start-ups for the Hong Kong programme. A new accelerator is planned this summer for Dubai, and a new programme subsequently for the US.

The need for creative thinking at Infiniti – Nissan Motor’s luxury car division – is growing, thanks to some aggressive targets. By 2021, Infiniti will only produce electric vehicles. In addition, it aims to have 50 per cent of sales transacted through e-commerce by 2025, from none at present. Infiniti also wants to triple its business volume in China by 2022. In January 2018, The Alliance (the governing entity for Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi) established a US$1 billion Alliance Venture Capital Fund, which Fisher thinks will help the Lab attract even better start-ups.

The Alliance Venture Fund addresses a key problem of the programme – where Infiniti is left with the bill after incubated companies that went through the Lab wound up getting funding from other sources. One such company was Hong Kong-based Cove, which after completing the Infiniti Hong Kong Lab secured funding from InMotion Ventures, the venture capital arm of Jaguar Land Rover.

“We were effectively grooming people that went away,” says Fisher.

You need commitment by the organisation, globally and locally, the time of key executives and key people for the mentoring to open doors
Dane Fisher

Another Hong Kong founded start-up ActiMirror – which produces digitally interactive mirrors, principally aimed at the retail industry – completed the Lab programme in Hong Kong in December 2 017. Though an odd fit for a carmaker, ActiMirror CEO Victor Ruiz says that some “good conversations” emerged, with a near-term project to incorporate ActiMirror products in Infiniti showrooms, and the long-term possibility of having smart mirrors embedded in cars. “They gave us good exposure in Hong Kong … they dedicated resources, time and premises to us,” Ruiz says, adding that a capacity for investment would have helped.

With the venture fund in place, start-ups passing through Infiniti Lab accelerators will be able to pitch directly to the Alliance Venture Fund investment committee, according to Fisher.

The Lab has also modified its work to address Infiniti’s strategic goals more directly. It has narrowed from covering a wide range of tech at the initial intake stage to focus on mobility solutions, albeit Fisher’s misgivings about ignoring ideas that don’t seem directly connected to the business at first. “What might not seem like a core business could be core later on.”

A Toronto start-up, Pantonium, has developed a dynamic routing system that enables effective car pooling and point-to-point bus services. Fisher points out that by bringing Pantonium into Infiniti Lab, Infiniti executives and Pantonium founders were able to figure out a solution that benefited both. They are working on a closed-loop car pooling system suitable for office workers who are increasingly being moved to suburban office parks in North America. Infiniti will supply the cars, should a deal be made.

“You need commitment by the organisation, globally and locally, the time of key executives and key people for the mentoring to open doors. If you don’t have that, it will never be successful,” Fisher says.

When Infiniti Lab started, Fisher was working with a part-time assistant. Now, there are eight people working on the Lab full time, including a small team to help “operationalise” start-ups that will work with Infiniti.

Getting buy-in from busy executives has been a major job, as Fisher has tried to link the Lab to the rest of the company. In addition to getting executives to help with mentoring start-ups, Infiniti Labs has created an “intrapreneurial programme”, designed to let Infiniti executives with ideas of their own work in the accelerator. Infiniti would allow participants to finish work early on Friday to dedicate time to working on their “new” businesses. Infiniti Lab brings in mentors to help and provides a curriculum similar to its regular programmes.

Ultimately, teams make their pitch to the executive team at Infiniti. According to Fisher, 30 per cent of staff at head office are keen to give the intrapreneurship programme a try.

The intervention of The Alliance chairman Carlos Ghosn in announcing the Alliance Venture Fund is critical, in Fisher’s reckoning. “It gives permission to the business that start-ups and thinking differently are essential to our success. That helps guide the regions that this is something that they should prioritise.”

(The full version of this article is published in the June issue of The Peak magazine, available at selected bookstores)