Tal Cohen has spent a quarter-century working as a research scientist and professor of engineering and computer science at Georgia Tech. He co-founded a company that provides consumer behavior intelligence to major corporations. He served as vice chairman of an organization that promotes American and Israeli business collaborations.
These days, he's playing matchmaker.
In 2015, Cohen, 55, co-founded Drive TLV, a Tel Aviv-based business incubator that collaborates with select mobility startups and introduces them to global partners, such as Volvo Cars, Honda, Cox Automotive, Hertz and Aptiv. The Israeli business has a sister venture-capital arm, Next Gear Ventures, that in some cases invests in the startups.
Deputy Mobility Editor Pete Bigelow caught up with Cohen to discuss the suddenly uncertain state of startups and venture capital. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: We are in the midst of THE coronavirus CRISIS and a rapidly changing WORLD. How does this affect entrepreneurs? What are you advising companies?
A: Entrepreneurs are, by definition, about responding to needs. So this phenomenon we see now is a once-in-a-century kind of thing, hopefully, and I think they're asking themselves about what's happening and asking how they might take their technology and turn it into something of value. I have this discussion daily the past few days or weeks. The real leap is going to happen when they are brave enough to take more distance from their current ideas and make a focused leap into where the industry is going to be when we come out of this bubble.
Q: Why was there a need for an incubator that links startups with global companies in the automotive realm?
A: You have two different entities that want to work with each other, but they don't speak the same language or do the same dance. Drive is basically an institute to make that dance happen. It's taking an elephant and a mouse and making that dance happen. You have nimble, small-budget organizations that have fantastic advantages on one side and very large, robust execution machines that are composed of very talented people on the other. But their structure is effective in the execution of mass manufacturing, not adopting to new technology on the fly.
Q: What's the role of Next Gear Ventures?
A: Drive is an entity that is about commercialization. We finished raising the [Next Gear] fund a year ago and probably have $30 million that's cherry-picking the startups from Drive based on those interactions and how well they work with partners and understand it very closely.
Q: Why focus on mobility-related companies?
A: Mobility is on the verge of a revolution. Or going through one already. You know all the acronyms with CASE or ACES (Autonomous, Connected, Electric, Shared). You combine them and you create a void in AI or sensors for the autonomous side, in data mining and connectivity, storage. There's such a wide variety of needs, and they're all over the place. So there's this great pressure that brings entrepreneurs into this area.
Q: You've been a founder. Now you're on the other side. Do you miss it?
A: When you identify a big opportunity, you almost visualize the path ahead. You almost can visualize the particular acute need and you have the urge to move the thing forward yourself. But honestly, I'm enjoying working with many founders and seeing how their business is. We're helping them create value, business relationships and helping with the first round of funding all the way to an exit. It's rewarding. It's combining my research, education and entrepreneurship all in one package.