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maternity line was going well and was being sold at Nordstrom’s, so while her dad was tinkering with his washer fluid-heating systems, they had been cheering on each other’s entrepreneurial ventures. Then, in the fall of 2016, Jere got a call from Navistar requesting more units.
“Dad said, ‘There are no more, you bought the whole manufacturing run.’ He wasn’t sure whether to scale up production, because it was just one fleet,” she says. Two weeks later, a major auto manufacturer called and said it had also discovered Jere’s washer fluid system in the Mopar catalog, and was potentially interested in adding it to the newest model year of its cars. Jere asked Diane to come to a couple of meetings with him.
“Two weeks into this series of meetings, it was so clear to me,” Diane says. “I had witnessed the birth of the startup scene in Seattle, so I had a different take on how to start the business. I sat down with Dad and asked him to walk me through his whole [intellectual property] portfolio. That’s when the light bulb went off—this is not just a system to heat washer fluid, this is autonomous vehicle technology.”
Autonomous vehicles, as they’re currently conceived, rely on a network of sensors and cameras to “see.” If a speck of dust or gob of ice lands on one of the sensors or cameras, it affects the system’s ability to accurately interpret data and the surrounding environment. Keeping these visibility systems free of dust, snow, ice, bugs, and dirt is fundamental to the vehicles’ operation.
Diane began to conceive of how Jere’s system could be used on the go to keep these visibility systems clean and clear all year round. And while the development of autonomous vehicles continued, Jere’s invention could be used on driver-operated vehicles just as it had been on the snowplows, she realized, meaning there was an immediate market to address as driverless technology solidified.
She didn’t initially share her excitement with Jere. Instead, she says, she hired a friend who runs an executive mentoring group to walk her off the cliff of going into business with family. “I pitched to her first—here’s the opportunity and I think we have the beginnings of IP around a whole ecosystem of products to help autonomous vehicles see.” Instead of talking her out of starting a company with her dad, Diane’s friend offered only encouragement.
Diane laid out her vision to her dad soon after, and said she wanted the two of them to spend three months seeing how far they could get. “I said, ‘Look, Dad, I’m a closer. There’s a whole side of my personality you don’t know. We’re getting on the rocket ship.’ He was like, ‘Go, honey, go!’ When you finally find a co-founder and have someone to bounce ideas off of—neither of us had that before.”
Diane put on her recruiter hat and sprang into action. She found washer/wiper experts and began conducting demos with a production vehicle Jere kept stashed at his cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Driving back and forth between Michigan and Seattle, Jere would hit truck stops along the way and demonstrate his heated washer fluid system in their parking lots, talking to truckers about their visibility challenges.
Jere learned that while snow was a big issue up north, bugs were a huge problem down south—and one of the hardest to solve for self-driving vehicles because the protein content in the smashed bugs can block data transmissions and cause the vehicles to crash. The possibilities for Jere’s technology, which could clean lenses quickly, began to seem endless.
“We got three months in, and I could tell what traction looked like—we were getting the right reactions,” Diane says. “I told my dad we needed to apply to an accelerator, and he said, ‘What’s an accelerator?’”
Diane had just learned about the relatively new Techstars Mobility program in Detroit, and she told Jere they probably wouldn’t get in, but would apply anyway because no matter what, they were going to need to raise investment capital soon. “Dad knew nothing about that either,” Diane says with a laugh. “And then we got in to Techstars.”
It was a full-circle moment for the Lansingers. They’d be returning to the Motor City and renting an Airbnb just south of where Jere had worked in Highland Park. “He remembers being at work during the riots [in 1967],” Diane says. “He remembers Detroit going from a vibrant city, then getting more challenging, and then the riots. He saw the whole exodus to the northern suburbs, so to see that whole arc and then come back—I told him we’re going to contribute and help rebuild the city.”
Jere and Diane went through the program last summer, and last week, Seeva announced it had raised $2 million from Trucks Venture Capital, Dynamo Venture Capital, Expansion Venture Capital, Haystack Fund, and Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, which is managed by AOL co-founder Steve Case. Meanwhile, Navistar has been waiting for a year and a half to place a new order for Jere’s washer fluid system. Diane says Seeva is planning to start manufacturing more units this month. [Correction: We incorrectly listed Haystack Fund as Haystack Partners. We regret the error.]
“We’re trying to own direct-to-[auto manufacturer] sales,” Diane says. In the future, she envisions Seeva being an innovation-driven supplier to automakers. “Most invest heavily in R&D but iterate slowly. Our thought was, we’ll stay research-driven, building products on the far horizon, and reshape suppliers. We’re living that whole angle where tech and muscle intersect to create something completely different.”
So far, this unexpected Seeva journey is clearly bringing Diane a lot of joy. But there are obvious challenges. For one thing, women are still uncommon in the automotive C-suite. The male CEO of a startup recently told her he thinks she has an unfair advantage because she’s a woman.
“Unfair? Hardly, given the cards stacked against women in terms of percentage of VC funding that goes to female-founded startups, the scarcity of female role models and mentors available to us, the lack of equal pay for equal work, and the social prescriptions that still exist for women to take a step back or to the side and let their male counterparts step up and ahead,” she points out. “Fortunately, most men I’ve encountered in business are pretty woke.”
Diane says her accumulated experiences have taught her to have compassion and patience with the natural course of life. “They remind me to be grateful for what I do have, to be brave and strong for those around me, to hold that far-horizon vision, and to multiply my own strength by surrounding myself with people different from me who have their own unique talents,” she adds.
That blending of complementary strengths essentially sums up Jere and Diane’s relationship. I ask Diane if, at this stage of her life, she expected to be co-founding a tech company with her dad.
“I bought my first entrepreneurship book in high school, so I suppose I’ve always known I’d be running my own company, and I was drawn to technology long ago, so that’s also no surprise,” Diane says. “But doing this with my dad? Never imagined that at all. What a gift!”