Toyota AI Ventures, a subsidiary of Toyota Research Institute (TRI), is a Silicon Valley-based venture capital company which invests in early-stage start-ups developing technology in areas including AI, cloud, data, mobility and more.

Mobile World Live spoke to Jim Adler, founding MD (pictured, right), about some of the key trends the company is witnessing with the potential to advance the broader autonomous driving sector.

Is the autonomous vehicle market opening opportunities for start-ups or new entrants to the automotive sector, and if so in what fields?
AI is disrupting many industries. And now AI is coming for the automotive industry, in the form of autonomy technologies that are unlocking new, unbundled business models. Start-ups are experiments in the marketplace to discover which business models might capture the most customer value for these breakthrough AI technologies.

What factors are key in your decisions to invest in a new or emerging player, for example is it all about technology or does the business case remain key?
Our mission at Toyota AI Ventures is to explore what’s next for Toyota by investing in early-stage start-ups in AI, data, cloud, autonomy, mobility, and robotics. As Toyota’s first standalone venture capital fund, we look for companies that will deliver both financial and strategic returns. Like other VCs, we focus on three key components when evaluating potential investments: the company (which includes the team, the technology and the business model); the market opportunity (which must be big, broken, ready, and accessible); and the terms of the deal itself.

Great technology may be necessary for success, but it’s far from sufficient. Technology doesn’t win over customers. It’s the people who build great products that deliver value. With early-stage start-ups, the calibre of the founding team is the most important ingredient because start-ups are notoriously difficult. We look for teams that are resilient and confident, but humble enough to learn from the market and pivot when necessary.

What level of expertise around AI are you finding among potential investments: are there any basic requirements these companies must meet before you will consider an investment?
We are at the beginning of this AI era, and so many of the best AI practitioners are emerging from universities. However, to embed this technology into valuable products, expertise in big data, cloud, and edge technologies are critical.

Is it better to concentrate on investments/companies with a global focus or is there room for a more localised approach?
By definition, mobility is local depending on the population density, trip lengths, public transportation infrastructure, and regulation. Thus, we expect innovation to arrive and thrive from anywhere in the world.

What are the hottest developments you have in the pipeline?
In January, Toyota AI Ventures announced a new call for innovation to find and fund early-stage start-ups that are building solutions for smart, connected cities. We believe technology has a key role to play in improving the quality of life in urban communities, and I’m looking forward to how the private and public sector can leverage emerging technologies to create more innovative cities.

This article was originally due to appear in the MWC20 Barcelona Show Daily newspapers as part of our conference speaker coverage. Due to the cancellation of the event we are instead publishing them online.