[Updated 11/2/17, 10:01 am, with CEO comments.] Boston’s self-driving vehicle startups are on a roll.
This morning, Optimus Ride said that investors have pumped $18 million into the company in a new funding round. The news follows the announcement last month that global auto parts supplier Delphi (NYSE: DLPH) agreed to purchase NuTonomy for up to $450 million. Optimus Ride and NuTonomy are both Boston-based MIT spinouts working on autonomous vehicle technology. Four-year-old NuTonomy raised at least $19.6 million from investors before agreeing to the acquisition, which is expected to close by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, two-year-old Optimus Ride says it has raised a total of $23.25 million from investors across two funding rounds. The new investment was led by Greycroft Partners, with contributions from Emerson Collective, Fraser McCombs Capital, and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, according to a press release. The company’s earlier backers include NextView Ventures and FirstMark Capital.
Optimus CEO and co-founder Ryan Chin says the 28-person company will invest the new money in hiring another 50 people or more, and expanding its fleet of five test vehicles to at least 25 vehicles next year. The goal is to grow the fleet to more than 100 test vehicles in the next two years, he adds.
The company has tested its technology on the campus of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA. It signed an agreement earlier this year with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the city of Boston allowing it to test self-driving cars on public roads, starting in Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park in Boston’s Seaport neighborhood. The Seaport area is the home of both Optimus and NuTonomy, the latter of which began testing self-driving cars in the neighborhood in early 2017.
Optimus has been testing vehicles during daytime hours and in clear conditions or light rain, Chin says. The plan is to put its technology through more rigorous challenges—such as night-time driving and poorer weather conditions—and test the cars in additional locations. He declined to share more specifics about expanding the tests.
“The best teams are the ones that make use of useful data,” Chin says. “You could certainly drive around the block thousands of times and rack up a lot of miles, but that doesn’t mean anything. What you need to do is … drive in conditions where you haven’t dealt with certain things before, and glean meaning from that, and take that information and refine your software.”
Optimus is developing the “full stack” of autonomous vehicle software, Chin says. That means its software will handle mapping, controlling the vehicle, object detection and avoidance, coordinating vehicle fleets, and more. Like many companies in this sector, Optimus doesn’t make hardware; it partners with companies like NVIDIA, one of its investors and a supplier of graphics processing units, and automakers. Chin declined to name his company’s partners in the auto sector.
When asked about the NuTonomy acquisition, Chin says it “validated both the market, but also the engineering talent in the Boston area, especially in robotics and machine learning.”
“We have friends” at NuTonomy, he adds. “We congratulate them.”
Chin says Optimus isn’t positioning itself for a sale to a big automotive company.
“There certainly have been a number of companies that have done that,” he says. “We believe very strongly that we’re creating a standalone business.”
We’ll see if Optimus has what it takes to build a big company, but Chin is confident in the quality of the team, which has experience from the MIT Media Lab, Rethink Robotics, Google’s X, the DARPA Urban Challenge, and Zipcar.
“If you’re thinking about which teams can actually deploy autonomous vehicles, there’s probably a dozen to 20 or so that can do it,” Chin says. “Self-driving vehicles is a hard problem. You need the top people.”
Beyond the business ambitions, Optimus has put a focus on “social impact” as well, Chin says. If autonomous vehicles come to fruition, they could improve the quality of life for the visually impaired, the elderly, and others who can’t drive or lack access to adequate transportation.
“Mobility access is one of the biggest challenges for society,” Chin says. “We’re striving to develop technology that can address those issues.”