Malgorzata Wiklinska Is Looking for Technology

If the enthusiasm that Dr. Malgorzata Wiklinska expresses when she talks about what she does for ZF is any indication of her level of commitment as she searches the world for technology that can benefit the supplier’s portfolio, chances are ZF and the companies she discovers are going to both benefit.

Malgorzata Wiklinska is 34, loves to surf, lives in Santa Cruz, and up until recently, she commuted to work in Sunnyvale along CA 17 in a gold BMW M4. She still makes the run along the twisty route. Someone ran into her BMW. Now she has to wait four months to get a new one.

Oh, and Dr. Wiklinska—she has a Ph.D. in computer science—also happens to be the head of Digital Ecosystem and Global Innovation Hubs for ZF. Which explains why she has an office in Sunnyvale (“Isn’t that great,” she says, with a laugh, learning that I have come to the 2018 CES in Las Vegas from the frigid conditions in Detroit). Presumably, when some of the work that she does for ZF is brought to fulfillment, there will be fewer accidents along CA 17 (and elsewhere) because cars will be more autonomous.

Wiklinska’s job is not just focused on Silicon Valley, although that is a non-trivial part of where she spends her time.

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“I am responsible for finding partners worldwide.”

She spends time in places like Israel, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City and Dubai (“In Dubai, there is money, intelligence, software developers and many startups.”). Those places and others represent the “hub” part of her title.

As for the “digital ecosystem,” she says that there is a network of people and organizations—from venture capitalists to startup platforms like TechCrunch—that provide her with information about companies that she might be interested in checking out.

“Once I find the right partner,” she says, “a potential investment might happen.” She works with Germany-based Torsten Gollewski of Zukunft Ventures GmbH, a venture capital subsidiary that ZF established in 2016.
 

Wiklinska, who worked for a “Bavarian” OEM for six years before joining ZF, not only has that computer science background, but a degree in mechanical engineering. In some regards, she arguably has the right combination to make an assessment of the sorts of technologies that may be relevant to ZF—but she also points out that going forward, there are opportunities for ZF that are based on mobility as a service: “We’re not talking hardware anymore,” she says.

And whether it is a Tier One like ZF or an OEM, Wiklinska says that there will be a different way of doing business. “This is why we need partners.”

While she is primarily focused on digital platforms that can be leveraged by the company, she also acknowledges that there needs to be a focus on the physical products that the company produces (e.g., transmissions) because that is a source of revenue to pursue the other things.

What’s more, when the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) comes up, she says that one of the biggest opportunities that AI offers is in process improvements, such as focusing on the supply chain. Wiklinska says that last year they ran a hackathon in the Valley focused on reducing supply chain risks by taking advantage of the information that is Out There in places like Facebook and other social media platforms: if there is, say, political unrest in an area where raw materials are sourced, it might be important to make some adjustments in that sourcing approach; if there is a natural disaster (e.g., an earthquake), then it may be important because you may have a supplier in the affected area.

So given that Wiklinska spends much of her time assessing startups, the question arises: How does she do it?

“I have to be very frank,” she says. “I am becoming sick of startups coming to me saying that they have a self-driving software stack. I hear that so often, I can hardly believe it.

“My first question is: ‘What’s your USP?’ Then, ‘What is the structure of your team? What is your competency? And what makes you better than, say, a Waymo?' I mean, Waymo is the market leader for software in that area, so what makes you better? Show me that. I want to experience that.”

If those questions are handled, then there are others, like “What is your strategy? What is your business model? How can your technology make my technology better or bring me new business offerings?”

Then, if they make it past that gauntlet, “The best way to figure it out is to go there to see it, to see a minimum viable product. Then have a demo within three months.”

She admits that with time she has gotten a sense almost right away whether there is something there. “Ninety or 95 percent of the startups I meet are worth nothing.”

While this might seem as though Wiklinska is rather, well, brutal, and she admits that she is a “very critical person.” “I cannot and will not support startups that will not bring us any benefits.”

And it is worth noting that in December 2017, the tech accelerator Plug and Play (plugandplaytechcenter.com) presented Wiklinska and her colleague Mamatha Chamarthi, ZF chief digital officer, with its Corporate Innovation Award in the Mobility category, recognizing organizations that support and mentor start-ups.

Tough but fair.

Consider: Malgorzata Wiklinska is young. Working in Silicon Valley. Traveling the world, looking for the latest in technology. She works with established digital leaders like Microsoft and NVIDIA; she works with younger companies like Berlin-based mobility startup door2door (door2door.io) and in-vehicle networking software company Excelfore (excelfore.com), which brought its first product to market in 2011.

And she is in the auto industry. While some might think that it is an “old” industry, she maintains that many of the traditional OEMs and suppliers are transforming themselves into companies that are more open, more progressive and more willing to pursue a laudable goal:

“The goal of autonomous driving is to save lives. This is something I really, really believe in.”

She also likes to drive.