[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 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!”