Innovative Mobility Charges Forward
Launch of California Mobility Center advances key plank of region’s Prosperity Strategy
March 31, 2021: The Sacramento region’s goal of becoming a ”global leader for entrepreneurs, firms, and workforce in future mobility” got an electric boost on March 11 with the opening of the California Mobility Center (CMC). The center’s goal is to accelerate the commercialization of innovative mobility technology.
Developing a cluster of innovative mobility businesses is one of the six key planks of the region’s Prosperity Strategy. That may sound like a lofty goal given that many regions are chasing such companies. But California and the Sacramento region have some big competitive advantages, as the CMC’s Chief Operating Officer Mark Rawson explained. California is the largest market for electric vehicles in the Western Hemisphere; the “Big Seven” automakers and more than 40 percent of mobility start-ups have a presence in California; and the state has favorable policies and regulations. The Sacramento region is the plum location in the state because of its concentration of industry expertise (boosted by world-class research at UC Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies), access to policymakers and regulators, and its proximity to Silicon Valley, where costs have made hardware development prohibitively expensive. The region also has a diverse and growing workforce and a diversity of communities that serve as market models for the mobility industry.
But California is also a complicated and diverse market and new entrants need a guide. Rawson said the CMC is designed to bridge the gulf between start-up incubators and the market by providing opportunities for field-testing, developing commercial prototypes, and customized strategies to enter the market and scale up. Areas of focus include smart and shared mobility solutions, fueling and charging infrastructure, and automated, connected and electric and zero-emission vehicles for on- and off-highway use.
The CMC’s business model is a three-part ecosystem that facilitates opportunities for its emerging company clients with its industry members, who are large established companies such as automakers, key suppliers to automakers, utilities, and tech companies. The third component is the preferred service providers, pre-vetted companies that provide commercialization services to the emerging companies.
“You need to get your product into the marketplace with some early adopters so they can prove out the fundamental attributes of your product or service,” Rawson said, and working with them at the right stage of their development is key. “They may have a fully developed product with what they think the market wants,” but access to trial markets and collaborations with established companies can accelerate the innovation and commercialization process, which greatly reduces the time, costs and risks it can take getting products to market.
Another key strand in CMC’s strategy is to foster a workforce with the skills to work in the advanced manufacturing sector, which will be key to keeping mobility companies in the region as they grow. The Career Pathways Program was launched in late 2020 with a $1.4 million grant from the City of Sacramento’s CARES Act funding to retrain people displaced from the labor force due to Covid-19. About 300 people participated in the first phase, delivered in collaboration with the Sacramento Valley Manufacturing Initiative, the Greater Sacramento Urban League, La Familia Counseling Center, and Asian Resources, Inc. The CMC recently won another $600,000 from the California Workforce Development Board to expand the program.
This is a good example of the kind of sector-based workforce development, aligned to key opportunity clusters and a more inclusive, future-facing workforce that is another key plank in the Prosperity Strategy. As an April 2018 Brookings Institution report stated ”Perhaps the most important factor that will determine long-run economic prosperity in the Sacramento Region is its ability to grow, retain, and attract a strong workforce.”
The CMC was launched with $5 million in sponsorship from electricity provider SMUD, a founding partner along with venture capital firm EnerTech Capital and PEM Motion, a consulting and engineering company with a focus on sustainable technology. SMUD has committed to supporting it with another $10 million in matching funds as the center attracts other support. The CMC had a soft launch in the fourth quarter of 2020 when it announced its first two clients, Mountain View-based fleet charging company Amply Power and Muncie, Indiana-based DD Dannar, which makes mobile off-road energy platforms.
Its latest client, Minnesota-based Zeus Electric Chassis Inc., designs and manufactures electric-powered medium-duty work trucks, a sector that has largely been dominated by diesel vehicles. That provides a huge opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the CMC has brokered a deal for SMUD to purchase five Zeus trucks, which will also serve as valuable field-testing for Zeus. “As we transition to a zero-carbon economy, innovators like Zeus will be the key to helping us turn Sacramento into a cleaner, greener, and more prosperous region,” said SMUD CEO and General Manager Paul Lau. Rawson said the CMC was looking at the potential to create a buyers’ pool for municipal entities for such vehicles. That is the kind of program where SACOG, with its track record of providing shared services and procurement for its member jurisdictions, could help as well.