Looking to better position itself within the innovation ecosystems in the United States, Thales Group on Thursday announced the creation of a group that will work and invest with technology startups and leading academic institutions in the country to bolster its own growth initiatives and bring its technology to new markets.

Thales is calling its new innovation platform xPlor, which includes membership in the Boston area’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, a facility that brings together researchers, faculty, students and businesses in the creation of disruptive technologies.

xPlor is a “catalyst for Thales in the U.S. and on a global basis to really connect innovative ideas and capabilities that are emerging from the U.S. to Thales’ strategic growth initiatives,” Alan Pellegrini, president and CEO of Thales USA, told Defense Daily in a recent interview ahead of the launch. “It’s important that Thales be immersed in that world and connect those ideas with our own business areas that we want to grow in.”

Thales USA President and CEO Alan Pellegrini. Photo: Thales
Thales USA President and CEO Alan Pellegrini. Photo: Thales

Pellegrini said that Thales will leverage the ideas and capabilities xPlor finds through investments, cooperation, licensing agreements and other means. Pete Roney, chief innovation officer at Thales USA and the manager for xPlor, described the platform as a hybrid between a venture capital firm and a management consulting group, although it doesn’t have an investment fund. Instead, depending on circumstances, xPlor has a range of options for working with and investing in startups and the academic community including advisory services, licensing, and even acquisitions, Roney said.

Thales said xPlor has three pillars for success. The first is taking the company’s existing capabilities in its aerospace, defense, space, and security and transportation segments.

There are three pillars of success for xPlor, including being a foundation for innovation, a platform for prototyping and launching new products, and an opportunity to strengthen the Thales brand within the United States and industry, Pellegrini said.

xPlor’s outreach isn’t limited to the Boston area. The group expects to tap into emerging ideas and capabilities elsewhere in the United States, Pellegrini said. Already the company has partnered with neurosurgeons on development of a head-worn augmented reality display, providing surgeons with greater awareness while reducing fatigue during an operation on a patient. The system was used in January to complete the first ever navigated spine surgery, Thales said. 

The DragonFly display is based on the company’s Scorpion helmet-mounted display technology used by fighter pilots. Thales will likely set up a standalone company for DragonFly, which could be part of Thales or done with external capital, Roney said.

Another effort underway through xPlor is a partnership with about a dozen firms in Silicon Valley and the East Coast for the development of a “novel architecture to solve a comprehensive suite of problems in big data,” Roney said. “We’ve engaged some marquis customers in some of our core markets who are walking down the path with us.” There will be more information about this effort in the future, he added.

Thales, which is based in France, has about $14 billion in annual sales, with about $2 billion through its Thales USA business.

Thales’ model for tapping into innovation hubs in the United States is different from one that Europe’s Airbus Group established in May, which is based on a venture capital approach. Airbus Group Ventures, based in Silicon Valley, has a $150 million initial commitment to invest in disruptive and innovative business opportunities around the globe that are related to the company’s strategic business areas.