[Correction, 2/23/18: See below.] The mobility sector has spawned plenty of unlikely alliances that have led to new products and business models for self-driving vehicles. But it’s hard to get more unlikely than Seeva, a Pacific Northwest mobility startup with Detroit roots, run by a vivacious daughter and her retired father, and based on technology that almost languished forever in an old parts catalog.
The company has designs on disrupting how component suppliers do business with auto manufacturers in the age of autonomy, and the story of Jere and Diane Lansinger’s company is playing out a lot like the mobility industry in miniature: a stew of brains and brawn, seasoned with decades of engineering experience and an intense drive to get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning trillion-dollar sector. Jere is a 78-years-young hobbyist inventor who spent his career as an engineer in the automotive business, and, in 2017, was the oldest person ever accepted into the Techstars accelerator program. Diane, age 49, is a former recruiting manager for Microsoft and a serial entrepreneur whose other company is a maternity apparel startup called Kinwolfe.
The first thing you should know about Diane, Seeva’s CEO, is that she’s an absolute force of nature, and that’s apparent roughly two minutes into a conversation with her. She’s bright, charming, ambitious, and prone to infectious laughter. She grew up in suburban Detroit as her father built his career at Chrysler, where he worked for many years at its former headquarters in Highland Park, MI.
Diane and her dad have always been close. Both are natural-born engineers (although she says she’s the arty one in the family) with an interest in gadgetry and building better mousetraps. Eventually, Diane took off for college and ended up in the Seattle area, where she still lives with her husband and two children. After a long career at Chrysler, Jere decided to retire a few years ago.
They thought they knew what the future would look like—she’d continue to run Kinwolfe and mentor people in the local entrepreneurial community, and he’d kayak and bike his way through retirement—but Jere just couldn’t let some of the ideas he’d been working on at Chrysler go. He first asked the company if he could moonlight for them in order to continue working on the concepts rattling around in his mind. After they turned him down, he asked for permission to keep working on them on his own.
“They were like, ‘Sure, Jere, have a wonderful time tooling around in your garage,’” Diane recalls. He was iterating on his ideas for how to heat up windshield washer fluid in cold weather. “He had a whole bucket full of failures. The joke in the family was, he retired for a day,” she says. But he kept plugging away, testing concept after concept, until he finally hit on a heating method that worked much better than any in the past, so he filed a patent application.
Here’s where things got interesting. The patent process, though long and laborious, is typically a fairly straightforward affair. An inventor hires an attorney to file an application, the application is reviewed by the patent office, the lawyer handles follow-up with the inventor, and the application is approved or denied. In this case, Jere got a call from his attorney, who asked him to fly to Alexandria, VA, to meet with the official reviewing his application.
“The patent officer told my dad, ‘We get a lot of these, and I think I understand why it’s unique, but I want to make sure I really get it.’ My dad’s attorney said it was just a formality. So my dad goes in, and two hours later, the patent officer was still getting into the details, saying he’d never seen anything like it. They had a little bromance going, and the guy said, ‘You’re definitely getting this patent.’”
Flush with excitement from his meeting in Virginia, Jere arranged for a small, Southeast Michigan company to manufacture a pilot run of his system to heat washer fluid because he wanted to see if he could attract the attention of automotive companies. He ended up getting the system listed in the Mopar parts catalog. (Mopar, a portmanteau of motor and parts, is Fiat Chrysler’s parts, service, and customer care division.)
And there his system sat for the better part of two years, until a sales engineer with Navistar, a trucking company, discovered it in the catalog. He’d been trying to work through a problem one of Navistar’s customers, the New York Department of Transportation, was having with its snowplow fleet.
The issue was with the vented area housing the wiper blades, called the cowl, where the windshield meets the hood. When snow piles on top of the cowl, it can interfere with the vehicle’s ability to defrost the windshield, which leads to fogging on the inside of the truck. To prevent that from happening, the snowplow drivers were constantly pulling over and scraping.
“The sales engineer thought if he could drop my dad’s system into the cowl, it would melt the ice,” Diane says. Jere’s mechanical-only system heats a vehicle’s washer fluid and is activated after the driver hits the key fob, which functions as a remote starter. Within a few minutes, the car’s washer fluid is steaming warm and capable of clearing the windshield of snow and ice quickly without the use of a scraper. Navistar ordered 10 units and installed them on plows in an informal pilot project, and they were an immediate hit with the drivers.
Navistar, which builds and services the plows for New York state, began placing Jere’s system in other trucks in the fleet one by one as they’d come in for routine maintenance. In the end, Navistar bought the entire 600-piece production run. Jere’s response? A typically nonchalant, “That’s pretty cool.”
Meanwhile, Diane began to sense that Jere might really be onto something. Her … Next Page »