Mission Innovation: the Boss in the Ideas lab
Sebastian Grimm's role as FutureStarter is reflected in his job as Head of Innovation Lab, where he deals with the future on a daily basis. His mission: to discover and develop new things.
Sebastian’s team develops products and processes, refines their benefits for new target groups and opens up new business areas. He draws on the extensive expertise of ZF's specialist teams in a wide range of development areas - from e-mobility and wind power to commercial vehicle and industrial technology. He also draws on his own knowledge, acquired during his corporate career, as a freelancer and in start-ups.
His penchant for innovative and forward-looking processes, concepts and technologies was demonstrated right at the start of his professional career. Immediately after graduating with a degree in business systems he joined a large German car manufacturer and set up e-commerce in the company's merchandising division. That was more than 25 years ago, at a time when just 6.5% of German adults were using online services.
The ability to recognize, develop and evaluate ideas and their potential at an early stage is almost a suitable job description for a position at the ZF Innovation Lab. Sebastian reflected on his team, "Our aim is to promote the development of creative new ideas within the company and give team members the chance to try them out and implement them. We evaluate suggestions in several stages to determine whether they are ready to be implemented or still need a little more time." Team members formulate their ideas and present them in a pitch. If the approach is convincing, the innovators receive a time, cost or headcount budget to pursue their project. True to ZF's internal motto: "Be the CEO of your ideas!" Employees thus become entrepreneurs.
The suggestions do not always have to be in the company's core area, for example, Sebastian is particularly proud of an innovative idea from his team that uses ZF expertise in a completely new business area: "An employee with a passion for sim racing suggested using our expertise in steer-by-wire to develop a gaming steering wheel based on an electric ZF steering system. It comes deceptively close to a racing car in terms of feedback and steering forces." The project has already been presented at several trade fairs and the colleague has since moved to ZF Racing, where the ZF steering console is being readied for series production. A completely new business area that makes optimum use of existing knowledge in the company.
For Sebastian Grimm, walking through the world with open eyes while observing and connecting things is a key skill for innovation management. As head of the Innovation Lab, he is constantly looking for inspiration and new ideas. An annual visit to the Hannover Messe trade show is as much a must as studying the funding landscape or dealing with social phenomena such as an aging society. Sebastian Grimm and his team are also constantly screening the start-up scene - an almost inexhaustible pool for new ideas, business models and collaborations.
The diversity of his team is very important to him: "We are a pretty diverse group: the many different skills and biographies of our team members are enormously helpful. This broadens the perspective and always brings in new aspects that you might not have thought of yourself. Our work not only contributes to the transformation of the company, but also avoids silo thinking by bringing together people and areas that have not previously had much to do with each other."
It is also important that the company creates framework conditions for creativity and flexibility and gives new ideas a chance. "Openness to innovation is deeply rooted in ZF's corporate culture," says Sebastian Grimm, summarizing his impression of his four years at ZF so far. "I've never seen that before at large corporations. Despite the size of the company, ZF conveys the feeling of an approachable company that involves its team members in decisions and values transparency. I am also fascinated by the networks of many colleagues who always manage to pull someone out of their sleeve who can help if a project comes to a standstill."
Persistence pays off
The combination of tenacity and openness recently helped a project that was created in the Innovation Lab reach series maturity. With ProSound, ZF has developed a system that can recognize and evaluate acoustic signals using artificial intelligence. "ProSound knows whether a fire department or ambulance is approaching before the driver has even noticed. The algorithms can distinguish between different siren signals, such as a German siren and the typical police siren of a U.S. patrol car," says Sebastian Grimm, describing the system.
Another example shows just how wide the range of proposals in the Innovation Lab is, involving the use of reed grass as a particularly sustainable packaging material. However, Sebastian Grimm is unable to say whether the proximity to the reed banks of Lake Constance played a role in this invention.
The fact that the head of the Innovation Lab still runs his own company fits in with the openness and promotion of creativity at ZF. Due to his interest in camping, Sebastian Grimm has developed a navigation app for caravans and motorhomes together with three friends. By entering individual vehicle data, the app helps avoid bridge underpasses that are too low, passages that are too narrow and tight-radius turns. He also regularly attends trade fairs and conventions outside the ZF spectrum, where he looks for innovations in other industries that could also be a business model for ZF.
Sebastian Grimm also experienced his top ZF highlight at the 2023 IAA Mobility trade fair. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited the ZF stand and tried the ZF steer-by-wire gaming system: "It was a great feeling to see the Chancellor having fun with something created in our Innovation Lab."