Chris Thomas exudes a quiet intensity when he speaks about how he identifies the mobility-focused startups he is seeking for his new fund, Assembly Ventures.
He wants to coach as much as invest. He wants to leverage more than a decade of relationships with C-suite executives to neutrally arrange engagements and marriages for the companies Assembly Ventures adopts.
At 42, Thomas has the pedigree. He comes from a middle-class public school upbringing. After attending Michigan State, he did a stint as an investment banker. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army, earned an MBA at the Yale School of Management, and co-founded Detroit-based Fontinalis Partners with Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford and others in 2009.
The Fontinalis credo of investing in and driving innovation across next-generation mobility is imbued within Assembly Ventures, based in Detroit and Berlin.
Thomas has two partners. Jessica Robinson is a former Zipcar and Techstars executive, co-founder of the Detroit Mobility Lab, and chair of the Michigan Mobility Institute. Felix Scheuffelen is the former managing director of Plug and Play Ventures in Germany and operating partner in Berlin-based Beyond1435. It is an innovation consortium among Deutsche Bahn, Siemens Mobility, Bombardier and Swiss Federal Railways.
Thomas describes his team’s expertise as force multiplication “where one plus one equals five or one plus one equals 10.”
The three see focusing on Western mobility as a solid play amid the decoupling of U.S. technology and business development with China.
The name is partly an homage to Detroit’s history of putting a nation on wheels. Thomas grew up in suburban Detroit. He co-owns Buddy’s Pizza, a local icon with a number of national awards.
“When you think about 100 years ago, Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the West, and I believe it can be again,” Thomas told FreightWaves. “As I thought about what I wanted to focus on and where I wanted to focus on it, I knew it was Detroit, the state of Michigan, and the Western world.
“There are so many legacy assets that we can leverage if we focus on building the components we need to be truly viable.”
Thomas lists four must-haves to succeed: talent, an entrepreneurial ecosystem, capital and incumbent engagement. The latter means the auto industry and its suppliers.
“The one I can’t control is incumbent engagement,” he said.
But Thomas knows the levers to pull.
“Automotive is a part of what we’re doing. But it’s only a part. We define mobility as the physical and digital movement of the goods, people, data and energy,” he said. “So, we’re looking at all aspects of the mobility ecosystem, which certainly includes automotive. And there’s a ton of room for innovation within the automotive space.”
The name is also part of his mission – to assemble the best team in the world to advise and invest in the most successful mobility companies and start-ups across North America and Europe.
The big three
Assembly Ventures is holistically pursuing startups across the mobility landscape, including in logistics, electrified mobility and digital content.
Logistics could be across land, sea, air or space in digitization, artificial intelligence (AI) automation, robotics and supply chain management.
Electrified mobility takes in utilities, smart grids, electric infrastructure and vehicles that will someday be used for storing renewable energy.
Digital content — from advertising to work tools to gamification — applied to getting from Point A to Point B “is very exciting to us and is one of the subsectors that we’re spending a lot of time looking at.”
Assembly Ventures sees Series A and B funding rounds as its sweet spot.
“That’s where you can both have the most impact working with management teams, really thinking strategy, engagement, business development, sales, and also have the ability to have a seat at the table both from a governance perspective and strategy-wise,” Thomas said.
Seed round investing in “fantastic young companies we’re seeing” is on the table. But he does not see Assembly Ventures investing in later-stage companies.
“By not focusing on seed, you’re derisking a little bit.” A and B round capital raises suggest some maturity and readiness for “either a big sprint or a big inflection point of some sort.
“You’re getting into a long-term relationship. You need to be committed to each other, and you need to be around for the good times and the bad,” Thomas said. “I’m a big believer in culture. And I’m a big believer in teams. You want to invest in great technology. You want to invest in great business models. But you really want to invest in great people.”
And only so many at a time.
“If you try to do 10 things for 10 people, you do nothing for 10 people,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to focus. You have to succeed at your current sprint. And then you can start the next. You can certainly plan for other ones. But you’ve got to be laser-focused. You’ve got to block and tackle. And you’ve got to run really, really hard.”
No SPACS here
Assembly Ventures eschews the trendy special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) that raises money in an initial public offering (IPO) to invest in a young company. They are the rage in electric and autonomous technology startups.
“That’s the new hot fudge sundae, man,” Thomas said. “Everybody wants one. And they look delicious. But I believe in being very clear about what it is I’m going to do and how it is I’m going to do it. A SPAC conceptually is pool funding that can do anything.
“The model we’re building with Assembly and the way we’re engaging in assembling the very best of this industry on an investment-by-investment basis, on a team-by-team basis, is very different than that model,” he said. “Not to say that’s not an interesting way to get to market or to structure the capitalization of business. But it’s probably not the way that I’ll go.”