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allows us to emit 40X the laser power and still be Class 1 eye-safe. We had to build all of our own components, including the
laser, receiver, scanning mechanisms, and the processing electronics. We figured out how to cost-effectively utilize InGaAs
detectors and leverage low-cost telecom components in our lasers to meet both the performance and scalability required. We
do all of this using just one laser and one receiver, and get better performance than using an array of 64 lasers and 64 receivers—and still meet required cost targets.
MC: Are you implying you’ll be able to compete on price?
JE: There are multiple companies saying they will be able to
eventually offer sensors at the $100 mark. With that low cost
comes dramatic reductions in performance. We are not in a race
to the bottom—instead, we focus first and foremost on providing the highest-quality data customers need to safely operate a self-driving vehicle, yet still easily meet customers’ price
MC: How close are you to shipping products?
JE: We’ve already been shipping products to customers out of
our 70,000-sq-ft. facility in Orlando. We’re in the midst of a
100-unit run of our current product series. We start our next-generation run of 10,000 units later this year, with deliveries
also beginning later this year.
MC: There’s a lot of Level 4 and 5 cars projected to be
on the road in 2021. How do you anticipate meeting
JE: Luminar has partnered with four major autonomous vehicle programs that are currently testing our lidar systems. But
we will quickly be moving to scale to 10,000 units starting later this year. What’s great is we hear often from our customers
that within the foreseeable future, they would like to purchase
all of the units that we can produce.
MC: That’s rare for a startup. What made you choose
to locate your plant in Orlando—to be in the vicinity
JE: It starts with the people and the quality of the talent in
Orlando—and UCF/CREOL was the reason we located our
R&D, engineering, and manufacturing here. There is the highest concentration of lidar expertise in the world within a 10-mile
radius of our building. Between Lockheed Martin, Northrop
Grumman, Harris, L3, and the Kennedy Space Center, there is
a huge infrastructure and pool of talent. I was able to quickly
put together a team with more than 700 years of combined lidar
experience, including controls engineers, lasers, and receivers.
MC: Can aerospace engineers design cost-effective products
that can be produced in consumer volumes? The automotive
industry is reputed to be very cost-sensitive.
JE: Right now, we’re making a transition from an R&D-focused
company into a global supplier of lidar with substantial man-
ufacturing efforts. And with that comes a few additional re-
sources we’re bringing on.
MC: Locating in Orlando is a smart move! The costs in
Silicon Valley are no doubt much higher than in Orlando.
JE: Yes. Real estate, pay scale, and turnover is more rational,
too. We brought a little bit of Silicon Valley to Orlando, and we
are bringing a little bit of Orlando to Silicon Valley.
MC: Do you get any subsidies from local governments?
JE: No, we have not asked the state or local governments for
any subsidies. We raised $36 million in seed funding over five
years from a number of sources, including Canvas Ventures,
GVA Capital, and 1517 Fund.
MC: You make it sound easy!
JE: It always sounds easy after the fact. We’ve been extremely
cost-efficient, and at the same time have had real products to
show both customers and investors. We also spent five years
keeping the company in stealth mode to lock up our IP and supply chain, which was the hard part.
MC: I have known you for a long time, and now you are on
your way to becoming a major success. How did you do it?
JE: My mantra is “hire people smarter than you.” My career
started on the technology side as a PhD research scientist, and
being PI on DARPA SBIRs and Air Force STTRs. I got into
the commercial side by doing strategic marketing at Newport,
where I was lucky enough to meet a lot of great people. Then,
I was the CTO at Ocean Optics, and from there started Open
Photonics to be able to think outside of the box to deliver products to solve unmet market needs.
MC: What makes you do that at the philosophical level?
JE: My advice is to go out and build social capital, which means
doing things for other people, providing service to the industry
and other groups without the expectation of being paid back.
For example, volunteer for OSA or SPIE committees. This can
be as simple as helping a fellow graduate student get an experiment done.
MC: Sounds pretty much like the “give-to-get” philosophy I
have been promoting.
JE: It is similar, and my dad always taught me to find the win-win. Newport, Ocean Optics, and Spectra-Physics each funded some of my research while in grad school, and I was helping
them because I was genuinely interested in the work. Now, it’s
funny that I ended up working at each of those amazing companies. Every single job I have had is because of someone who
knew me or knew my work. That is social capital, when someone is willing to give you a job because you have helped them
in the past.