Former GM exec Barry Engle discusses his latest project, Qell
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location for Qell’s headquarters. Its offices are in San Francisco.
Barry Engle’s recent exit from General Motors raised questions about the industry veteran’s next move in automotive.
It turns out, Engle — who left the automaker this summer after 15 months at the helm of North America operations — is now CEO of Qell Acquisition Corp., a special-purchase acquisition company he recently co-founded.
The publicly traded company, based in San Francisco, is searching for potential merger targets in the next-generation mobility and sustainable industrial transportation sectors.
Engle, 56, spoke with Staff Reporter Alexa St. John about his latest venture. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: Tell us about Qell Acquisition Corp. What’s in the name?
A: We had been looking for a number of weeks together as a team trying to come up with a name. After a weekend of Scrabble, board member (and former Tower Automotive CEO) Kathleen Ligocki said, “Here’s a Q word for you.” If you Google Qell, it does show up in the Urban Dictionary with a fairly favorable translation. We liked it because it’s short, it’s one-syllable, it’s memorable and nobody else was using it.
What’s your vision for the company?
What we see is a secular shift away from internal combustion engine technology towards electric. That is a trend that has been playing out for some time, but more recently it has been gaining a lot of momentum. Yes, there is, on the part of governments worldwide, regulatory emissions requirements that are pushing the technology.
More importantly, what we’re now seeing is the products and technology have evolved to a point where it’s become a really interesting consumer proposition.
Vehicles are not only becoming more electrified, but they’re also becoming ever more intelligent, ever more connected. There’s a lot of other technologies that are showing up simultaneously, in terms of advanced driver assistance systems, for example, other safety features, connectivity, telematics, infotainment. All of these technologies are making their way onto the vehicles.
At Qell, we understand that whenever there is that kind of technical disruption, that there is an opportunity for those with the best solutions.
Our interest is in helping companies that have these kinds of solutions to be able to make their way to market, to grow and scale and to create real value.
So why a special-purpose acquisition company?
A SPAC essentially has some of the elements of the other asset classes that we’ve utilized in the past to create value. You have the opportunity to apply the same skills and concepts to really dramatically impact and change the fortune and direction of the company that you’re working with and to take a deserving young, growth company and be able to help it get access to the public markets and subsequently to be able to grow and scale.
How well are automakers, including GM, keeping up with startups when it comes to mobility efforts?
The established legacy players — OEMs as well as Tier 1 suppliers — in some cases have been later to the game, which has allowed smaller, more entrepreneurial growth companies to gain position and gain a lot of attention. At the same time, I think that many people, investors, are underestimating the amount of investment and resources and energy that the more established players have put into mobility efforts more recently.
I would caution that on a go-forward basis the competitive dynamic is going to be different, that the traditional OEMs and supply base is not going to be left behind. What will happen is there will be a very interesting balance and interaction between the established players and smaller, more innovative players who combine together and collaborate to achieve success. I don’t see it as being an either-or proposition.
How do you sift through all the noise?
There are lots of companies that are trying to bring forward some of these emerging technologies.
Look, not everybody is going to make it. For us, that is one of our biggest challenges: How do we sort through all this and understand who has the best likelihood of success and by virtue of helping and working with them, can we influence the outcome and improve the likelihood of success?
Does COVID change the landscape of next-generation mobility?
Even with the SPAC, we were able to continue to interact with investors, be able raise money. Now, the companies that we’re engaging with, we do it differently; so much happens over Zoom. In some ways, it’s way more efficient. As it relates to mobility and the companies and what’s being developed, the work continues.
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