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.
Well, I did see what I expected when I looked at markets in Mergeflow. Companies like Continental, Magneti Marelli, thyssenkrupp, Schaeffler showed up. What I had not had on my radar, but what makes sense given the context, are companies that provide coatings. This included Atotech, Henkel, and PPG.
Looking at mainstream industry news also showed more or less what I expected, as shown in the screenshot below (company names identified by Mergeflow; bigger font size means that a company is mentioned more often in the context of shock absorbers):
…and the surprise about shock absorbers
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.
ClearMotion is not only a “device company”. It is also a “data company”.
ClearMotion’s devices continually collect road condition data (screenshot below from ClearMotion’s website):
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.
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.
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):
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.