Susanne Hahn, center, glboal head of Lab1886, cuts the ribbon on the new Atlanta office space with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, right, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Photo: Trevor Williams

A new innovation hub opened by German automotive giant Daimler in Atlanta has already begun to foster cross-border exchanges of technology talent. 

Launched July 16 with fanfare and attendance by both Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the auto maker fulfilled a promise made when its best-known brand, Mercedes-Benz, opened its gleaming new U.S. headquarters in Sandy Springs in  March

At that event, also well stocked with dignitaries, executives announced that Atlanta would be the home to the fourth global center for Lab1886, named for the year the company’s two founders invented an early automobile. 

Ms. Hahn addresses employees and attendees at the launch, noting that the company is hiring globally.

But what was revealed at the opening within the WeWork offices at the Terminus building in Buckhead was how much the local presence is already working with its other two outposts in Germany and one in China

Lab1886 revealed its new CEO to be veteran UX and product designer Paul Lafata. Mr. He comes to Atlanta from California, where he most recently led BCG Digital Ventures, an arm of Boston Consulting Group aiming to help clients take ideas from conception to commercialization.

He told Global Atlanta that the Lab1886 executive team already has a distinct international flavor.

“I’m the only American here,” he said. 

He’s joined by CFO and Managing Director Alexander Ernst, who comes from the Stuttgart office. Yan Song, the CTO, came over from Beijing and was the first employee in the U.S. operation, setting up the company and office with help from the Mercedes-Benz USA team. She’s spending a full month here to help get things running smoothly. 

The current staff of nearly a dozen will eventually grow to a nucleus of about 25 people, ebbing and flowing depending on the ideas Lab1886 is tasked with bringing to the world. 

One could be commercializing the Volocopter, an electric, autonomous aerial vehicle that can carry two passengers high above traffic below. One on display at the launch resembled a cross between an oversized remote-controlled drone and a traditional manned helicopter.

The Volocopter is one of many ideas Daimler is aiming to commercialize in the mobility space. The two-person aerial vehicle is already licensed to fly in Germany.

“To be totally clear, that is not just a vision, it flies already. It is reality, and Volocopter has its license already in Germany to fly manned,” said Susanne Hahn, the global head of Lab1886, in giving a preview of what’s to come. “This is definitely a market of the future and we are totally convinced about this.”

With projects like this on the horizon, Mr. Lafata foresees the necessity to recruit talent from all over the world, both internally and externally. 

Paul Lafata

“Sometimes the best ideas in innovation come from the outside — whether it’s outside of Daimler or outside of the country,” he told Global Atlanta.

Ms. Song has already seen that play out in exchanges between Lab1886 offices in Germany and China, where her local team has learned a lot about digitization trends from German staff coming over on personnel exchanges.

Similarly, Germans have seen how innovative China has become. Just this month, Daimler became the first automaker to gain government approval for testing autonomous vehicle prototypes in Beijing, the capital and epicenter of many core tech investments in China. 

“We collaborate in Beijing with Baidu, Alibaba and a lot of the big digital giants,” Ms. Song said. 

Communication hasn’t been a problem thus far, and she believes projects will be increasingly shared among teams on three continents. 

“I think innovation has no borders,” Ms. Song said. 

Yan Song

Lab1886 focuses on making sure Daimler AG is getting out ahead of “megatrends” in mobility like digitalization, urbanization and globalization, with an eye toward leading on electric vehicles, the sharing economy and autonomous vehicles. 

Doing so means harvesting the best ideas from among its 290,000 global employees and figuring out how to bring them to fruition, Ms. Hahn said during her presentation at the launch. 

Those employees or teams who come up with new ideas can be pulled off their day job and given resources to scale them up. The goal is for Lab1886 to go from idea to implementation much more quickly in a fast-paced global environment. 

“When the idea finally makes it through the incubation phase and when we plan a spinoff to further commercialize it, then the ‘founder’ can be the CEO of the new company,” Ms. Hahn said. 

And on the other hand, “failure” in this startup world simply means you go back to your old job with a new energy and experience. All this happens through a process Lab1886 has standardized across the world, she said.  

“We globally bounce ideas, we exchange knowledge, we exchange learnings and we exchange people as well for further developing them. This creates a highly effective innovation network, and we call it our innovation machine.”

All this will drive even more attention from car makers to Atlanta Georgia, said Gov. Deal, whose team has wooed many global automotive headquarters including France’s Groupe PSA, which is also capitalizing on Atlanta’s blend of tech and automotive strength

“You have not only just given us the opportunity to showcase what we have here in Atlanta,” Mr. Deal said to a crowd that included Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Dietmar Exler. “You are also sending a very powerful message to other companies and to other parts of the world by your presence here, and that’s what we are so pleased with.”

Later at the event, technology evangelist Guy Kawasaki, who serves as a Mercedes-Benz brand ambassador, gave his top-10 list for staying ahead of the innovation curve. 

Learn more about Lab1886 here

See a list of available Lab1886 jobs in Atlanta, including positions like “Lead Venture Architect” and “Lead UI/UX Designer,” by clicking here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...

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