The trajectory of an idea, from mind to motion, is more than simply getting from A to B. A journey that begins with an innovative notion is usually littered with stops and starts along any number of highways and byways before it arrives as a fully realised finished product.
And it’s these pitstops along roads less travelled that can make all the difference between success and failure. Just ask Continental Automotive Singapore (Continental) President & CEO Lo Kien Foh, who says the innovation stage has taken on new meaning in recent years.
"The very beginning of our value chain is innovation," he says. "And then once you’ve created a piece of technology, you have to take it to trial to make sure it meets the needs of both the business and the market, and then you commercialise it. That’s the process in a broad sense."
Innovation from within
But the launch pad that is innovation isn’t what it used to be, especially for a company as enormous as Continental. More time in the oven can result in a better product down the line, which is why, in 2017, Continental formed a seperate legal entity devoted to creating partnerships with startups, in order to give the company’s business areas the chance to develop new concepts and ideas quickly and effectively.
"We call it co-pace," Lo says. "It’s the startup organisation within Continental. We needed a team that could move quickly; an accelerator to create partnerships for innovation. A team that could partner with other external startups to ensure we were part of the best new technologies and business models being developed. Besides partnering, they also invest in startups. That’s co-pace."
If you look at the ecosystem we’re part of, whether it’s in Singapore or anywhere in the world, we’re heading into a digital world.
Created at Continental’s German headquarters, co-pace has now expanded to the company’s locations around the world. In July 2022 it was officially launched in Singapore to explore and establish partnerships with startups in the Asia–Pacific region.
As a separate entity, co-pace has the agility and focus to concentrate on its partnerships, allowing it to co-develop and create innovative breakthroughs in fields such as automated driving, sustainability, intelligent rubber and mobility services.
The creation of co-pace gave Continental an added launchpad in its broader innovation strategy.
"Within Continental itself, we have built up different group sectors and business areas, spearheaded by a central R&D unit. Internally we collaborate together very well, to get the most out of this.
"We also believe in external collaboration," Lo says, "whether it’s with universities, industry or government. In fact, we’ve created a SGD$50 million [US$34.5 million] corporate lab with the Nanyang Technological University designed to commercialise technologies in the market."
For the electronic engineer and former Director of R&D, this side of Continental’s business is a delight. Lo’s background in and enthusiasm for research and development is reflected in Continental’s commitment to innovation. "Going into the future, connectivity is important," he says. "If you look at the ecosystem we’re part of, whether it’s in Singapore or anywhere in the world, we’re heading into a digital world."
Which is why Continental is investing so heavily in innovation, even acquiring Quantum Inventions, a mobility intelligence provider, in 2017. It’s the part Lo calls the "front end". "If we’re able to really build up the front end, we’ll be much more successful later on," he says.
Collaboration is so important. We can’t do everything alone.
That part, the trial phase, is where Continental and its partners truly make magic. "For example, we have a partnership with a company called EasyMile, a provider of autonomous vehicles, to test and develop autonomous driving solutions," he says. "In Singapore we signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2018 and worked on software for driverless vehicles together.
"We pilot innovations to make sure they are usable and fit what the market and businesses want. After that, we go into the development phase, before putting it into the market and to our customers."
Autonomous vehicles aside, Continental has also been hard at work with the Singaporean government, contributing to the ‘Smart Nation’ program. This initiative is designed to "transform Singapore through technology" by implementing the latest innovations in areas such as health, business, urban living, government services and, of course, transportation.
"Singapore has become known as the smart city," Lo says. "So our aim is to drive towards that, which means applying our technology beyond autonomous vehicles to robotics, for example."
The fruit of those efforts is the AMR, or autonomous mobile robot, which is in trial phase at the moment. "It’s a food delivery robot," Lo says. "It will be able to carry food from the restaurant through elevators, automatic doors, security checkpoints and so on until it reaches the customer."
The life we’re living is changing, and we need to evolve.
It’s this kind of connectivity – an idea that is spawned in the automotive field but takes shape in other industries for wider application – that inspires Lo and his team. "Continental has even created a software and systems academy, which is a training platform our staff can use to upskill and reskill themselves with the necessary competencies for the future," he says.
"The life we’re living is changing, and we need to evolve. We need to create a win–win situation not only for ourselves, but for our partners and customers. That’s why collaboration is so important. We can’t do everything alone."