Students help instil a culture of innovation

Founded by Henry Ford in 1903, Ford Motor Company has become a worldwide household name in the car industry. The company has recently announced its ambition to become a mobility company as well as an automotive company by extending its offerings to include new concepts and services that help to meet peoples’ future mobility needs. In this context Ford’s European Research and Innovation Center (RIC) in Aachen collaborates with the KU Leuven and Vlerick Business School on several projects, including in-company projects (ICP). Masters in Innovation and Entrepreneurship students Monica Ortiz Bolaños and Tomas Pinheiro joined forces with Jens Haemels, a Masters in International Management and Strategy student. Together with Mark Gijbels, Innovation Project Manager and University Alliance Manager at Ford RIC, Jens and Tomas look back on their ICP.

In-company project at Ford Motor Company
From left to right: Monica Ortiz Bolaños, Jens Haemels and Tomas Pinheiro

Future mobility

“We had several internal projects under the programme of future mobility,” explains Mark. But as time went on, we realised we risked missing opportunities if we were to focus our innovation efforts on developing and marketing finished products solely by ourselves. So, we decided to change tack and develop a basic technology platform instead, offering startups the opportunity to build and integrate their products or services into this platform, and go to the market as partners, with a shared offering.  This way, Ford is able to increase the attractiveness of the offering for specific users, while the startup gets access to a larger market.”

Mark Gijbels (Ford RIC)

“The question then is how to organise these partnerships, how to engage with the startup communities in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, how to find out which technologies are useful, and what these partnerships might look like.” And he goes on: “Starting from the platform we’re currently developing, Jens, Monica and Tomas scouted the startup community in the three countries I just mentioned, assessed the various technologies and invited eligible startups to an event in Aachen, which they organised, and where these startups together with our technical experts, participated in focus groups to discuss new ideas. The startups also got the opportunity to pitch in a Dragon’s Den style session to a panel of judges.”


It was a hands-on project, which is exactly why it appealed to Jens and Tomas in the first place. “The ICP was one of the reasons why I chose to do a Masters”, recalls Jens. “I wanted to gain practical experience, find out what business life is like, as I felt this was lacking at university. At Vlerick, however, we had plenty of projects and the ICP was the icing on the cake.”

Tomas nods: “We had to gather as much information as possible about the startup ecosystem, the different technologies and business models, not by doing desktop research, but by actually getting in touch with these startups. So, we got to know some of them well.  It was a great opportunity to work with all those C levels!”

Taken seriously

Both have fond memories of working with Mark and his colleague Alexandra Holz. “They kept a close watch on our progress,” says Jens, “but at the same time they gave us a lot of freedom to decide how we wanted to proceed.” With Tomas adding: “Mark and Alexandra were very supportive, treating us as members of their own team. I appreciated how the people at Ford listened to us, always taking our opinions into consideration.”

Jens also feels he really bonded with Monica and Tomas: “Working closely together, you get to know each other quite well. I believe we had the same mindset, so we had a good connection, the three of us.” Tomas agrees: “It was a very pleasurable experience. We laughed a lot during our trips from Leuven to Aachen. Sure, we sometimes worked long hours, especially in the days running up to the event, but we had great fun.”

Mission accomplished

Mark is pleased with the outcome of the project: “The event organised by Jens, Monica and Tomas was a success. They have also shown us how to best organise the scouting process. At the same time, we’ve gained a better overview of the startup ecosystem and an insight into the startups, tools and technologies that are underway. Examples that were discussed are blockchain, shared mobility, the integration of drones into our cars to deliver packages, or the use of drone as emergency response tools, to be integrated in the vehicles used by first aid rescue teams, fire brigades, the police etcetera. These applications might seem off-strategy at first, but they no longer are when we’re thinking about developing a platform.”

“But perhaps more importantly, the students have helped us develop a method to scan the ecosystem, to asses which emerging technologies may be of use to us. And while it was not the initial scope of the project, this method has now become part of our low engagement methods to keep abreast of new technologies and their applications.”

Ideas confirmed or adjusted

And Jens and Tomas, what have they taken away from this project? “It’s given me the opportunity to compare a big company like Ford and small, flexible startups,” answers Tomas. “To say they have a different business culture is rather stating the obvious but being able to actually experience the difference has helped me to decide which direction to take with my career. This in-company project has confirmed that I’m more drawn to startups. It’s not that I dislike big corporates, but they lack what makes me tick: flexibility, speed, little bureaucracy and the knowledge that you can have an impact from day one.”

“It’s taught me a lot about innovation and I’ve learned a great deal from Monica and Tomas. I can only hope that I’ve been able to introduce them to one or two things about international management and strategy,” Jens says, laughing. “I must admit that innovation didn’t grab me at first, but I’ve come to appreciate it. So much so that at some point I wondered if I shouldn’t have chosen a Masters in Innovation and Entrepreneurship instead. All in all, this ICP has been a great experience. It has helped me to look beyond my university degree and even my Masters at Vlerick.”


How does Mark feel about the collaboration? “Time and again, an ICP is an eye-opening experience, and this project was no different. Given its short duration, the result is never an all-encompassing report or market study. But it gives a good first idea and pointers for further exploration, a lot faster than if we were to be doing it via our standard internal procedures. For one, Vlerick students have access to the School’s network, which is different from ours when it comes to the start-up community. They also bring in a new perspective and new ideas. That’s why ICP students don’t need to be experts in our field. If they have an open mind, they can look at our activities from our customers’ perspective and help us to innovate our business model. After all, they are our customers of the future.”

“What always strikes me the most, however, is how they exude this entrepreneurial, hands-on spirit that is so typical of Vlerick and which is perhaps less common in a large organisation like Ford.  An ICP is a relatively easy way to infuse our teams with some of that spirit. In short: these students help to instil a dynamic innovation culture in an established research organisation like ours. They often have more impact on our approach and way of thinking than they could imagine.” 

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