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Hyundai Cradle Dreams of Mobility’s Future in Silicon Valley

In the very heart of the world’s startup mecca, Hyundai Cradle imagines the future of mobility. We interviewed Vice President Chang-Hee Kim of Hyundai Cradle Silicon Valley for his predictions on that future.

Silicon Valley has become a veritable mecca of futuristic technology and innovative business models, fueled in large part by its attraction of startups. Today, many IT startups that have gathered in the region are working hard to bring closer the realization of futuristic technologies like AI, Big Data, self-driving cars, and innovative subscription services. Their efforts, moreover, function within the larger collaborative network of global business corporations, research universities, and investment firms, contributing to a virtuous cycle of the region’s R&D ecosystem.

Of course, Hyundai, too, plays a role in that ecosystem. Seeking both sustainability and expansion of its business models, the Hyundai Motor Group launched Hyundai Cradle in 2017. Its visions for becoming a “smart mobility solution company” were made apparent when Silicon Valley was chosen as the new location. After three years of efforts at this forefront of global innovation, what has Hyundai Cradle accomplished? And what are its visions for the future of mobility?

Vice President Chang-Hee Kim oversees the operations of Hyundai Cradle Silicon Valley office.

Perhaps there is no better person to ask than Vice President Chang-Hee Kim, a computer science major and software engineer by trade, who has more than 20 years of experience in open innovation and technology scouting. He joined Hyundai Cradle Silicon Valley in 2018 as an executive in charge of operations and thus has overseen the office’s innovation efforts at the forefront. We interviewed him for the core visions of Hyundai Cradle and the development potential of mobility technology.

Hyundai Cradle functions within an organic network of research universities, startups, and investment firms to scout and develop technologies of the future.

Q. Let’s begin simply—what does Hyundai Cradle do?

Perhaps there is no better person to ask than Vice President Chang-Hee Kim, a computer science major and software engineer by trade, who has more than 20 years of experience in open innovation and technology scouting. He joined Hyundai Cradle Silicon Valley in 2018 as as an executive in charge of operations and thus has overseen the office’s innovation efforts at the forefront. We interviewed him for the core visions of Hyundai Cradle and the development potential of mobility technology.

Q. We feel that “open innovation” is a term that needs explanation. What is it exactly?

Open innovation is “open” in the sense that you’re embracing external sources of innovation. The traditional definition of R&D implied a secret process fully within the company, but open innovation seeks to share knowledge to innovate out in the open, keeping pace with the rapid change of trends in the information age.

I might draw an analogy here. Suppose there is only one person doing an assignment. It’s easy to keep the information secure, so no one will cheat you, but the process is slow and less efficient. But if you get a diverse set of people, each a specialist in his or her own field, the synergy not only makes the process more efficient but also makes for a better end-product. We’re trying to tap into this synergy by connecting to startups and research universities that produce lots of novel ideas and innovative technologies.

Hyundai Cradle Silicon Valley Office is located in Mountain View, CA, the global mecca of venture capital.

Q. Silicon Valley is the birthplace of Hyundai Cradle. Why Silicon Valley, of all places?

As I said, Silicon Valley has firmly established itself as the heart of global innovation. The technology giants Google and Apple call the Valley their home, and it’s also the world’s most active market for venture capital. This naturally draws in ambitious and talented people, who create more successful innovative companies, that would draw even more talented people, in a virtuous cycle.

So choosing Silicon Valley as the foundation of our innovation network just made perfect sense. But given that we started as Hyundai Ventures, a venture capital firm, the decision was even more obvious. After all, Silicon Valley is the global mecca of venture capital.

Hyundai Cradle has five open innovation offices worldwide, located in Korea, the U.S., Israel, China, and Germany.

Q. Hyundai Cradle has five offices around the world—Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Beijing, Berlin, and Seoul. What’s the role that the Silicon Valley office has, and how is it different from that of the other offices?

All Hyundai Cradle offices have the same underlying objective, which is engaging in open innovation. But I’d say that each office diverges in the means to accomplish that objective, depending on the local characteristics and talent pool. The Silicon Valley office’s role is to develop open innovation solutions in North America, where the West serves as the center of software and service technologies like ICT (Information & Communication Technology) and AI, and the Northeast serves as the center of biotech and robotics. We take these regional characteristics into consideration as we monitor a variety of industry trends and identify strategic technologies for the Hyundai Motor Group.

The Mobility Innovators Forum (MIF), hosted by Hyundai Cradle, had countless mobility experts congregate to share their ideas and visions.

One of the things we do to that end is hosting the annual Mobility Innovators Forum (MIF), which we started in 2016. The MIF brings together the experts in automotive/mobility industries to discuss the industry trends and share their visions, and in 2019, nearly a thousand experts came to weigh in on what became a very active and successful forum. In the simplest terms, the MIF is an open innovation platform provided by Hyundai Motors. The company does not gain financially from the hosting. But as a global leader in the mobility industry, it sees high social value in providing this open venue for exchanging ideas and building relationships.

Metawave, a radar startup partnered with Hyundai cradle, is working on car radars that better sense the surrounding obstacles and objects.

Q. Silicon Valley is known as a mecca for startups. What are the recent local trends in startups like? And how does Hyundai Cradle identify and develop promising startups?

The startup trends in Silicon Valley are not something you can define as one entity, and even if we could, they are always changing year by year. In 2018, AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) were in fashion; in 2019, digital platforms drew much attention; this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought a wave of interest in biotech, contact tracing, and corporate social responsibility (CSR), and many new applications are being built to meet the changing consumer needs of the post-pandemic era.

As for identifying and developing promising startups, we start by relying on our close network with universities, venture capital firms, and startup accelerators and incubators. Silicon Valley has many, many startups, which naturally means that there are many open innovation organizations like us as well. Car manufacturers like Toyota, Honda, Ford, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz have venture capital or technology sourcing firms here, and some have even built research facilities for fundamental technologies. So there is competition for identifying promising, innovative startups—and in order to outcompete other open innovation groups, maintaining a good relationship with other organizations in the region’s R&D ecosystem is crucial. The startups that are already famous and have lots of money invested obviously need no identification. But the so-called diamonds in the rough, promising startups that are still relatively unknown, are often discovered serendipitously while interacting with universities or venture capital firms.

In addition to all this, Hyundai Cradle participates regularly in a variety of events and conferences in the region, through which we are able to meet and scout many new startups and collaborate with them as needed.

Hyundai Cradle provides assistance like startup mentoring to promising startups, serving as a figurative cradle that nurtures their growth.

Q. What does Hyundai Cradle do to fulfill its social responsibility?

The culture of Silicon Valley places great value on helping the startups grow—and the value is in the act itself, rather than in the consequent profits. Of course, venture capital firms and startup accelerators’ main objective is to invest in startups and eventually profit. But they also take pride in the fact they’re helping create new jobs and deliver useful services and products to the global consumers.

That is to say, if you only care for profit in choosing your investments or partnerships, you won’t be considered a true resident of Silicon Valley. We take pride, too, in helping startups and giving them opportunities to grow into socially conscious businesses. We help the startup accelerators in selecting startups. We give mentoring to the chosen ones. All these activities help us be a legitimate, and socially responsible, member of the Silicon Valley community.

Intelligent Personal Agent, a voice recognition secretary service co-developed by Hyundai Cradle and SoundHound.

Q. What was a particularly memorable startup or partner during your tenure?

SoundHound comes to mind. We invested in that company way back from our Hyundai Ventures years, and we are co-developing with it this service called Intelligent Personal Agent (pictured above). More recently, we have built new partnerships with Ionic Materials and Solid Power to build all-solid-state batteries. Other than startup partnerships, one thing we are very proud of is the Elevate concept car, unveiled in the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). It’s an electric car with four robotic legs that can walk, which allows it to travel across harsh terrain that wheels cannot access. The small prototype robot demonstrated in the CES was a big hit with the crowd.

Hyundai Motors’ new mobility solutions for the future include UAM (Urban Air Mobility), PBV (Purpose Built Vehicle), and Hub (Mobility Transit Hub).

Q. We are excited about the expected advancements in future mobility. Personally, what kind of changes do you foresee?

The most recent trends in the mobility industry include the rise of eco-cars, expansion in the range of mobility service, development of autonomous driving, magnified use of communication networks like vehicle-to-everything (V2X), and focus on air mobility like UAM (Urban Air Mobility). All these areas are included in Hyundai Cradle’s research focus.

I also believe that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic will serve as an important variable. For example, the car-hailing services, in which human-to-human contact is inevitable, have already seen a shift in their R&D focus toward ride hygiene. Further down the road, we might see a greater demand for fully personalized micro-mobility (e.g. bicycles, scooters, and kickboards) vehicles. Moreover, in the U.S., the age of social distancing and lockdowns are resulting in a massive growth of the delivery service platforms, which comes with mobility concerns of their own. Now, no one can be sure if these changes are temporary or represent a permanent shift to a new social norm, but what can be said is that these volatile times entail new opportunities for growing unprecedented service areas.

Through partnering with startups and developing future technologies, Hyundai Cradle seeks to serve as a catalyst for the Hyundai Motor Group’s innovation.

Q. What is the ultimate objective of Hyundai Cradle Silicon Valley?

The Hyundai Motor Group is trying very hard to transcend the title of a car manufacturer and become a “smart mobility solution” for the world. And Hyundai Cradle is a representative part of that ongoing effort. Smart mobility is an umbrella term that includes both new mobility services and vehicles that can capably perform those services. The concept was born because our existing technologies and their narrow definitions of mobility could not respond well to the industry that is not just becoming more complex but also constantly expanding its range.

So Hyundai Cradle’s ultimate objective is the following: to discover and develop the core technologies that can lead the Hyundai Motor Group’s innovation, so that the group can realize its future goal of becoming a smart mobility leader. Our partnerships with the autonomous car radar sensor company Opsys, the AI startup Perceptive Automata, or the mobility service platform Migo, are some examples of the work we do to that end. Beyond that main objective, we can also take advantage of our Silicon Valley location to support U.S. based tests of mobility solutions of the group or help construct mobility strategies tailored to the U.S. market.

This decade will represent a crucial period of transition to the future of mobility, and Hyundai Cradle’s role to monitor that transition in this tech-mecca of Silicon Valley should be undoubtedly important. What we detect, we will communicate to the group so that it is reflected in the group’s strategic plans. I think our activity here with the startups really has the potential to generate lots of innovative ideas and technologies.