The surprisingly interesting business of shock absorbers

To be honest, I did not expect shock absorbers to be a hotbed of innovation. When I searched for shock absorbers in Mergeflow, I expected to see known companies, mostly in the automotive space, and perhaps some incremental improvements here and there.

I was wrong. At least sort of.

The expected…

Well, I did see what I expected when I looked at markets in Mergeflow. Companies like Continental, Magneti Marelli, thyssenkrupp, Schaeffler showed up. Also, there were companies that provide coatings, such as Atotech, Henkel, and PPG.

Looking at mainstream industry news also showed more or less what I expected. The screenshot below shows company names that Mergeflow identified in the news. Bigger font size means that a company is mentioned more often in the context of shock absorbers.

traditional providers of shock absorbers include Royal Enfield, Brembo, Tenneco, Yamaha, and others.

…and the surprise about shock absorbers

I did not expect to find venture-capital-funded companies in this area. But I found two; ClearMotion and SoftWheel. Let’s zoom in on them.

ClearMotion: Shock aborbers plus data platform

ClearMotion, at https://www.clearmotion.com/, received a Series C round of $100 Mio in February 2017. Investors include JP Morgan Asset Management, New Enterprise Associates, Qualcomm Ventures, World Innovation Lab, and Eileses Capital. No, not Continental, ThyssenKrupp, Royal Enfield.

ClearMotion’s core device is called Activalve, which in their technology page they describe as a “software-centric, electro-hydraulic device”. It is a lot more than “just” shock absorbers. Activalve uses a combination of software and electric motors to counterbalance disturbances caused by road conditions. According to ClearMotion, their device fits into standard car platforms.

The impact of an emerging technology is even greater if this technology also enables new business models.

ClearMotion’s devices continually collect road condition data (screenshot below from ClearMotion’s website):

ClearMotion provides a completely new approach to shock absorber technology. ClearMotion's data collection enables new business models, based on road condition data available in real time.
ClearMotion’s data collection platform enables new data-driven business models.

From these data, ClearMotion can then create an extremely detailed road condition map. Including, if I understand it correctly, seasonal changes (dry, snow, rain, …). Just think of what one can do with such data, and the business models these data may enable.

In fact, now ClearMotion is also building a new software platform. The platform is called RoadMotion, and ClearMotion is currently expanding their data science and machine learning teams.

This shows that ClearMotion does not only develop a new technology. This new technology also enables them to address entirely new markets and run new business models, in this case data-driven ones.

Because of these data platform capabilities, we put this article into our “software eating things” series of articles. In this series, we cover some perhaps not-so-obvious technologies being eaten by software. Other examples include circuit breakers and AI chips. In order to spot such technologies, we use a divide-and-conquer approach to game-changing innovation discovery.

SoftWheel: In-wheel shock absorbers

SoftWheel, at http://softwheel.technology/, raised $10 Mio, also in a Series C, in May 2017. Reports in Mergeflow did not specify who the investors are.

SoftWheel makes an in-wheel suspension system, which currently is available for wheelchairs, bicycles, and e-bikes. The wheel looks like this (screenshot from SoftWheel’s website):

Softwheel provides a new kind of shock absorber for bicycles.
Softwheel’s shock absorber system for bicycles.

Interestingly, a few months ago, SoftWheel struck a deal with Linamar, a big Canadian  manufacturer and supplier in the automotive industry. According to SoftWheel’s website, the automotive version of their shock absorbers is currently under development.

SoftWheel’s design goal for their automotive system is to reduce what is called “unsprung mass”. Unsprung mass in a car is everything that is between the road and the suspension system, e.g. tires, rims, hubs, break discs, etc. (no, I did not know this before; I learned it from SoftWheel’s website). Lowering unsprung mass (in the case of SoftWheel, reducing it to only wheels and rims) reduces energy requirements (smoother ride means less energy consumption). Compared to traditional systems, theirs is also lighter, which also works toward energy efficiency, or range extension.

What have I learned?

Apart from now knowing what “unsprung mass” is, my personal takeaway message is that it pays off to check on taken-for-granted technologies, to see whether something new, non-obvious, is happening there. In this case, this is a completely new business model that go beyond “selling parts or components”, toward data-driven platform business models. Also, if now somebody asks me for an example of “software eating the world”, I might tell them about ClearMotion.

5 thoughts

  1. Hi, it’s a good message and we should be aware of what’s happening around us. It’s a good skill to have.

Leave a Reply