"We were already a good team seven years ago," says Felix Poernbacher. He and five other founders of the start-up DeepDrive got to know one another during the winter semester of 2014/2015 in the TUfast project at TUM. Their objective was to build an electric race car and enter it in the "Formula Student" design competition. "This project brought us together and bonded us," Poernbacher recalls: "In the crucial phase before the race we were all in the workshop day and night, even sleeping there – when we were able to sleep at all. Those were tough weeks, but we learned an awful lot: about technology, project management and also about personnel management." The TUM team won the competition in "Engineering Design" in the race at the Hockenheimring track.
Poernbacher graduated from the TUM School of Management shortly thereafter, while the other project managers earned their degrees in electrical engineering and mechanical engineering at TUM. In spite of their various new jobs, they remained in contact. Their conversations were always centered on the topic of electro-mobility, how it is transforming the automotive industry and what new business areas are emerging because of it.
One platform for all manufacturers
"The fact is that now a lot of new players are pushing their way into the market in Asia, but also in Europe. These new players are specializing on certain customer groups whose needs they know very well. There are manufacturers who for example want to build an optimum vehicle for parcel delivery services, for shuttle services or companies in the trades," says Stefan Ender, who along with Poernbacher is the second Managing Director at DeepDrive. "Until now developments like that have been very expensive, since you have to design, realize and test the platform for every model; that means the entire chassis with the drive system and batteries. This gave us the idea of developing a Plug & Play solution – a platform on which the manufacturers can build any kind of vehicle." The business idea for the start-up DeepDrive was born.
Admittedly, the concept was not entirely new: Major automobile manufacturers have their own platforms on which a variety of different models can be installed. But the DeepDrive founders wanted to do more: Their platform was to be completely scalable, with a size that could adapt to meet customer demands, with a drive system that was compact and lighter than previous models.
Light design saves materials
In spring 2021 the graduates took their idea to TUM start-up consultants, participating in XPLORE, the pre-incubator program of UnternehmerTUM, the Center for Innovation and Business Creation. The program provides support in preparing the founding of start-ups, evaluating the market and establishing contacts with potential customers. Shortly afterwards the team built the first prototype – a platform which looked something like an oversized skateboard with batteries integrated into its flat frame.
The heart of the platform is a newly conceived, highly efficient drive system, consisting of two in-wheel motors with integrated motor control which drive the back wheels. Since the direct drive system eliminates the need for a transmission or axles, the design saves material and is therefore lightweight. A new design also gives the motors a high degree of efficiency and makes them very lightweight. The technology, for which a patent application is already pending, makes it possible to increase the vehicle range by 20 percent compared to the current state of the art, says Stefan Ender. DeepDrive was officially founded in May 2021.
Connection with cutting-edge research
The young company is supported by TUM Venture Labs. Among other things, the TUM Venture Labs offer founder teams a direct connection with cutting-edge research, to experts with a deep-rooted understanding of the specific market in question, to technical infrastructure and access to global networks of companies and investors. In addition the Digital Hub Mobility provides DeepDrive with valuable specialized expert contacts, exchange and project support in the mobility ecosystem.
In the meantime the team has grown to eight members who are bringing the in-wheel motor to series production readiness and continuing to develop the platform. By the end of the year the number of employees is expected to grow to more than 20. Interest on the part of automobile manufacturers in Germany and abroad is high, according to Ender: "The platform gives electric vehicle manufacturers the chance to concentrate on designing vehicles which accommodate the wishes of their customers, without having to worry about the drive technologies." DeepDrive has already been able to attract investors. Among others, the venture capital fund of UnternehmerTUM, UVC Partners, has invested in the start-up.
Each year 70 to 80 technology-oriented companies are founded at TUM. TUM and UnternehmerTUM support start-ups with programs specifically designed to match the individual phases of founding a start-up, from formulation of a business model to management training, and from market entry all the way to a potential IPO. The TUM Venture Labs offer founder teams from important scientific fields a complete ecosystem directly connected with research. As many as 30 teams can use office space in the TUM Incubator when preparing to launch their companies. With its own venture capital fund, UnternehmerTUM invests in highly promising technology companies and offers them a 1,500 square meter high-tech workshop for prototyping, the MakerSpace. The "start-up radar" of the German business community's innovation agency Stifterverband for German Science calls this support the best at any major German university.