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E-bus platforms for emerging markets: Q&A with Monika Mikac, CBO of QEV Technologies

Judy Lin, DIGITIMES, Taipei 0

Monika Mikac is CBO of Barcelona-based QEV Technologies, and former COO of Croatian EV startup Rimac Automobili. She started her career as a journalist but joined Rimac when the company was only an 8-person team. Mikac witnessed its lean beginning and helped grow the team and business. She is the "superwoman" of the EV world, helping with fundings and investments, establishing business connections and managing marketing operations for QEV and Rimac all these years. She will join MIH Alliance CEO Jack Cheng at the "Asia Venturing (II): Tech-Driven Mobility" event to be hosted at 8am Taipei time on August 10, 2021.

DIGITIMES talked to Mikac in a pre-event interview to learn more about the innovations at Rimac and QEV, what they have been doing and their visions in electrifying mobility in the emerging markets.

Q: You have established outstanding careers at Rimac Automobili and QEV Technologies, and you also are very familiar with the OEMs around the world. Having witnessed Rimac's success from its very lean startup days, and now with QEV, any insights to share with us? What lessons about innovation can we learn from these two non-mainstream startups in the EV space?

A: When I started in Rimac Automobili, nobody actually had experience or knowledge in the automotive industry and I think this was really positive because we didn't know how hard it can be. We were completely open minded about any new ideas. I think many HR teams should apply the same strategy when hiring engineers. For example, don't always look for engineers that have five years minimum experience in the automotive industry. Some other industry might be even better because it might bring fresh ideas into the team.

At the beginning in Rimac we didn't have the luxury to hire people with experience in the automotive industry since Croatia didn't have any automotive industry, so we hired anyone who showed any skill that could be relevant. A guy came in saying that he developed and produced his own electric bicycle - he was hired immediately. Those talented people from other industries or with some passionate hobbies can really bring a new perspective.

From Adrian Campos, a former Formula 1 driver and trainer who created Fernando Alonso, I learned more than a business lesson; I would say a life lesson. He said: "I started to achieve best results on the track once I realized the biggest enemy was myself."

From QEV racing team I also learned that you need to be resourceful. We were always the team with the lowest budget, and you need to find a way to compete with big guys. The only way you can do it is with creativity and different approach.

Q: Did you help rebrand QEV? Any special meaning behind the brand? Could you give us a brief overview of QEV's business landscape, in terms of regions and source of revenues? Do you build all of your electric buses and cars? Is there any opportunity for collaborations between QEV and MIH?

A: QEV was first founded as Campos Racing Technologies, or in short CR Tech, since at the beginning it was a JV between our funders and Campos Racing. Since the shareholding structure was changing, a decision was made to rename it to QEV Tech, which stands for "Quality Electric Vehicles Technologies." And we did a bit of rebranding when I joined in retouching the logo to reflect a bit more high-tech spirit.

We also did quite a lot of efforts on the marketing and visual side since before the company was more focused on developing technologies and not so much on the visual appearance. I consider both are very important because without a proper visual identity and marketing you will not be able to sell your products no matter how great they are.

QEV has three lines of business: Racing is where our DNA is and where we develop new technologies; R&D is where we apply technology and develop vehicles for other OEMs; and the highest growing segment of e-buses is where we develop and produce platforms for electric buses around the world. In the R&D segment we work with various OEMs like BAIK BJEV and Zedrive from China; Seat and Hispano Suiza from Europe; W Motors from UAE, and many more. In the bus segment we started our work in the Philippines first by converting old Jeepneys to electric and then delivering new buses. We also have clients in Latin America and Europe.

For this bus segment we do development and our production partner for serial production of platforms is China Dynamics from Hong Kong. When it comes to MIH, I believe there are various possibilities to collaborate; we are quite strong when it comes to integration and software development, but we also have clients that might be ready to use such platforms for their future vehicles. Also, if MIH at some point goes into the segment of electric bus, we would be happy to join forces with our developed technology.

Q: QEV has an e-bus business to serve the emerging market customers, which is very inspiring. What prompted QEV to have this line of business? What is the business model for this kind of service? How did you overcome challenges such as insufficient infrastructure, traffic congestion in emerging countries. What if battery dies in the middle of the road since you might be stuck in traffic jam for long hours of commuting?

A: Everyone is talking about how electrification is happening in developed countries; we have stories about companies making groundbreaking technologies and there are not enough talks about problems in emerging countries. It is easy to make an electric bus for US$800k but this will for sure not be acceptable in emerging markets. In reality, pollution is more of a problem in emerging markets. We started our work in the Philippines where you have 300,000 Jeepneys running on the streets that are the main way of transportation for most Philippines.

The government of the Philippines has a strong will to change this transportation to electric, but they didn't have local technology and know-how and buying fully finished buses would mean high cost. That also might result in closing factories that are producing fossil-fuel Jeepneys. Back in 2017, we were on a meeting with the minister of transportation, and we offered a solution to create electric conversion kit. In 60 days, we developed this conversion kit and presented the first electric Jeepney to government - this was all over the media and all ministers of the Philippines ride in this electric Jeepney.

Of course, at that point this was not a product ready for commercialization, but it was a good start. Projects developed even further where we developed full platforms. Nowadays our strongest partner in the Philippines is GET, which is operating like Uber of public transportation. We have 24 buses already operating and more are coming this year. Of course, we had to offer our clients in emerging markets full solutions, even the charging infrastructure - and here you need to have in mind that charging infrastructure is much easier when it comes to public transportation because you know the exact routes and when you need to charge the battery.

When it comes to being stuck in traffic, electric vehicles are perfect for it because if you are not having air conditioning fully on you are basically not using energy at all, while with gas-powered buses you are constantly using energy. This Philippines business model was for us a good showcase and example that can be replicated in other emerging countries. For example, in Peru you have local bus manufacturers and of course it is in the government's interests to keep jobs and buy local products. To such companies we offer our electric bus platform, and they keep production of body and interiors and final assembly. Two first electric units are driving in Peru and there is an order for an additional 76 already. At the end we realized there is a need for conversion kit or full bus platforms even in developed countries. We are discussing possibilities for conversion of yellow school buses in America, electrification of some sightseeing double-deckers in Europa and many more.

Q: Any plans for future expansion or fund raising?

A: Our company is just in the stage of transformation from a relatively small company in the automotive industry to big serial manufacturer. We got our first financing just before COVID from European Investment Bank in the amount of EUR7 million and this really helped us through the period that was tough for everyone in the automotive sector. Now, we are closing additional financing of EUR13.5 million. And future fundraising rounds will follow to scale up the bus business around the world.

We have also been nominated to lead Decarbonization Hub in Barcelona (D-Hub). Since Nissan will leave its production site in Barcelona, the government wants to make sure the people and factory will stay operational and we are one of the two competitors to take a lead of this project. This hub will be a place of manufacturing a wide range of electric vehicles and plans to house other leading projects such as a battery homologation center with APPLUS Laboratories, a battery development center with Eurecat (Technology Center of Catalonia).

(Editor's note: "Asia Venturing" is a series of monthly roundtables with roadmaps to the future focusing on the hype vs the reality of Asia's supply chain-boosted innovation ecosystem, jointly powered by DIGITIMES and Anchor Taiwan.)

Monika Mikac, CBO of QEV Tech

Monika Mikac, CBO of QEV Tech
Photo: Monika Mikac

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