Tom Hausken: Welcome, today we have Jason Eichenholz co-founder and chief technology officer at luminar technologies.
Tom Hausken: At Luminar Jason's responsible for R & D and engineering new products and bringing lunminar’s technology to market. He's a fellow of OSA and holds more than 35 patents on lasers and photonic devices.
Tom Hausken: Jason has an MS and PhD from Creole at the University of Central Florida and a BS in physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Welcome, Jason.
Jason Eichenholz: Good Morning.
Tom Hausken: Congratulations on this milestone in Luminari’s path. If we could just start with you explaining a bit about what the public offering is and why it's important to Luminar and LIDAR generally for listeners and what happened and why it’s important.
Jason Eichenholz: Luminar’s listing, via our SPAC [special purpose acquisition company] back in December was a pivotal moment for the company. Something we were really excited about because it really represented not only a growth opportunity for us within Luminar but also for the entire automotive industry.
And it strengthened our position to be the global leader in LIDAR and software for autonomous vehicles. So it was really a big event.
And for the company, and all those years of us trying to grow our company, it really is enabling us to accelerate production and the commercialization of our industry leading hardware, and then further bolster the software solution. It gives us flexibility to adjust and pivot and act opportunistically as new opportunities are put forward.
As we've been growing, post public offering, and expanding the team with the staff we need, it also allowed us to put the company in a really, really strong financial position. So all the cash stays with us or our shareholders aren't selling any stock as part of a transaction. In fact, the majority of them increase their stakes because they see the long term value of Luminar.
Tom Hausken: You said that this is a public offering, it's not an initial public offering, it’s not an IPO, I guess. What's the difference with that?
Jason Eichenholz: Yeah. That's a common question we get. We went through our public offering through a SPAC, it's a special purpose acquisition company. It's a type of investment fund that allows public stock market investors to invest in private equity type transactions. So it means we did go public, and it's traded under LAZR, but within the shell of another company, which in our case was Gores Metropolis.
So we chose to go public via a SPAC route, rather than an IPO and we did that in a partnership with Gore's, because they have one of the strongest track records in the space in building successful public companies through SPACs, as well as they have very, very deep technology and industry experience within the automotive space, which was important to us as we are going public via this SPAC.
Tom Hausken: So these SPACs have suddenly become a thing. They seem to be very popular now, maybe they always were, and we just didn't hear about them so much, why is that a more popular mode of doing this now and particularly in the LIDAR automotive area.
Jason Eichenholz: Yeah, so that is a common question in the industry, why are SPACs more popular now and they've been around for a large number of years. But what's really helpful for a high growth tech company like ours is it enabled us, via this transaction, to share our projections for the future with investors in a dispatch transaction.
What that means is it allowed us to attract institutional capital that's not typically possible in a traditional IPO. The route of a SPAC process really gave us the ability to market to investors more flexibly and efficiently in a more comprehensive timeframe than a typical IPO route. For tech companies it's very, very popular for those reasons.
Tom Hausken: Luminar is a second LIDAR company to go public in this way after Velodyne , Innoviz and AI have also announced plans to go public. What does this say about LIDAR companies that they're going IPO now and luminar being one of the first ones out of the gate.
Jason Eichenholz: I think the spike of IPOs and we're public offerings of LIDAR companies demonstrates the tremendous value that LIDAR technology has and that the market is beginning to recognize the value and importance of LIDAR in enabling autonomy.
Entering the public markets provides us with rapid access to capital, it allows us to continue our leadership position and enable autonomy at an unprecedented scale. It allows us to expand our operations quickly with the capital that we have, and I think that's one of the reasons why you're seeing this happen.
Tom Hausken: The public offering process requires a lot of public disclosures and there's a lot of anticipation as the date approaches. I'm sure there was a lot of work involved, a lot of excitement. This is the first time you've been through that experience, is there anything that surprised you about the process?
Jason Eichenholz: It’'s exciting to go public. I mean, it's just every entrepreneurs dream. You start a company, you grow a company, you go public. That's what you want. And it's also daunting, you know, a lot of public disclosures.
We're really, really fortunate in that we partnered with Alec Gore with our course and the team with Gore Metropolis. I mean, they really drove the path for us and showed how we could get there. But they also shared our vision for safe autonomous future powered by Luminar and so they're deep experience in that going public via SPAC space was invaluable in helping us successfully execute on our public offering
Tom Hausken: They make it sound like having the right partner is a big part of this process.
Jason Eichenholz: Absolutely. It's the right partner, but they were the right partner that matched into our team, the team that we've assembled over the past number of years. We would not have been able to get there and see our listing through without the hard work of the team that we built. We're really grateful also for the team with their talent, with their dedication. What they bring every day at Luminar and the match between the two was really important. The chemistry between our cores and our team was phenomenal.
Tom Hausken: If we could talk about Luminar a little bit more, maybe reveal how far Luminar has come since it was founded in 2013. If you could say a little bit about how it started. And then maybe where it came out of and how it started and the ideas for it in the beginning.
Jason Eichenholz: I have a co founder, Austin Russell, who I've known since he was in high school, and we've been working together and I started mentoring him. As he was coming out of high school, and going into Stanford and going to conferences like CLEO with me and to other OSA conferences, even as a student. So a lot of ties into OSA.
He went to Stanford, he got the teal fellowship, that really was a real catalyst for getting Luminar started and growing, and we've been doing r&d for a number of years growing in stealth and then we came out of stealth.
We're much more publicly visible but those early years of being able to grow Luminar and establish our very, very strong intellectual property portfolio while we were in stealth. To make sure we had a real strong IP portfolio and technology base in the I safe LIDAR and making really one of the first to move to 1550.
Doing so is really, really important because we knew how important 1550 and the iSafe LIDAR was to enabling autonomy and so if you think about how long ago, we knew that LiDAR was, and can be important. We knew how difficult it was to enable autonomy and we had the right technology solution being developed and now we're bringing it to full commercialization.
Tom Hausken: So you're saying that the 1550 was a key part of the strategy then.
Jason Eichenholz: We knew we knew the power and the photon budget advantages we knew very, very well, way back then, what it would take to be able to see out, you know, 250, 300 meters in performance. We knew how important it was to have the point density, and we knew that the technology was going to be the fundamental foundation. We planted the seeds, once we have the technology, to enable the software as well to do the perception.
Tom Hausken: I'd like to point out for the listeners that there's there's been claims that there was some 90 or hundred LIDAR companies out there which I questioned at one point you know sometimes people double count, or they get pretty inclusive, but there have been an extraordinary number of LIDAR companies out there. Certainly, not very many of them are going to make it all the way to the next milestone as Luminar has, so that's quite an accomplishment.
I want to also ask you something, so the Teal fellowship that was that's Peter Teal fellowship, for people to go off and work on a project, instead of completing college. Is that right, correct?
Jason Eichenholz: Correct, it is a $100,000 for us to then start Luminar and for us to grow the company. Having been there, you know, throughout that entire journey it was absolutely transformational for us in those early stages to get the company going
Tom Hausken: Interesting. Now, you talked about the technology, but you also mentioned software earlier and I don't naturally, think of LIDAR as software oriented, obviously software is in everything that we do now, but you pointed that out. Could you say something about the software and how that fits into the LiDAR equipment?
Jason Eichenholz: At the end of the day what we're really enabling is providing the vision. We've developed in the eyes for the self-driving car, so the cars can perceive the world around them in order to make informed decisions and be safe and ubiquitous. The Lidar is part of the solution.
Now we have the best LIDAR the highest performing LIDAR and it allows us, you know, you can look at it on a screen, but at the end of the day, you need to do perception. You need to be able to enable the car to understand the world around it. And the other pillar is the software. And when you have the industry leading hardware and you have the industry leading software to do perception, then you offer the complete solution.
Tom Hausken: I would have thought that the software would have been left to the automakers or at least a subsystem maker, who is using sensor fusion bringing in all these different sensors and then doing it at that point. But you're saying there's some substantial amount of software at the LiDAR within the LiDAR itself.
Jason Eichenholz: To be clear, we do the perception, we don’t do any of the route planning or any of those other things, but they do the controls, they do the planning. They do all those other aspects.
But we are as we are the industry experts on the hardware to develop the LiDAR we build our systems from the chip level up. We develop, you know, custom ASICs, we developed the lasers, we developed the receivers and the scan mechanisms.At the same time we develop the software with an equal level of attention to detail. Because we have the highest quality, the highest point density it allows the two symbiotically to work together to ensure the hardware and the software, I call it a one plus one equals 11 scenario, but you've got to do both.
Tom Hausken: I like this because I have a photonics background myself, a hardware background, and I always focus on that. I really appreciate that part of it, but often we neglect or we don't recognize in our optics field all the other stuff that goes into it. The electronics, the software that makes the whole package work. So you have a lot of software?
Jason Eichenholz: We do. We have a very, very strong team that develops software around the world now and we've really grown that team. But that's also another part of it, the automotive grade, making sure that the technology meets the IPF standards we make sure we've got functional safety built in. It's something that an automaker would put into a production vehicle.
Going public has allowed us to give us essentially the dry powder to bring in that team as well, to make sure that we've got an auto grade product.
We've got the technology, we've got the software, and we have a product that can be deployed in a vehicle that you're going to be able to get out in the showroom in just a couple years.
Tom Hausken: So tech technology intellectual property, obviously very important. Something else I mean maybe alluding as you're saying to the auto grade aspect of it, automakers are notoriously challenging to work with, very demanding, long time ranges, how has that been?
Jason Eichenholz: Well, so, so the industry is changing significantly and the auto companies and the OEM are rapidly trying to figure out how to address autonomy, it’s new. This is the single largest transformation to transportation since the Model T. So, transportation, as we know it is rapidly changing
With that rapid change the industry is realizing that they need to adjust and they realize that they need perception, very high quality perception, to enable autonomy, rather than Driver Assistance features. Both are really transformational, Lidar is a very, very important part of that solution, and the automakers that we're working with recognize the importance of the highest level performance for perception to have the safest autonomy.
Tom Hausken: Now the trade press has reported some important partnerships that Luminar has. What can you share about some of those partnerships?
Jason Eichenholz: Well, as we discussed, you know, now that we're publicly traded. I have to be very careful what we can and cannot say, but what I can talk about is our strong partnership with Volvo, partnership with MobileEye and Daimler trucks.
Tom Hausken: Oh Daimler Trucks. Okay.
Jason Eichenholz: Daimler trucks, yes, because trucking is a very important market segment for us, enabling the transportation of goods and services across the country faster. Having less spoilage of food, all those things. Daimler trucks, one of the leaders and in the industry has also recognized the importance of high performance LIDAR for their highway autonomy trucking operations.
Tom Hausken: A lot of miles on long haul routes where they can automate that. What can consumers expect in the near term raised regarding self driving cars on roadways? The question everybody wants to ask how soon can we expect mass production of these vehicles for the sort of average driver. Care to comment on that?
Jason Eichenholz: Yeah, I can. For production vehicles it's 2022 and that's when the real transformation begins in our partnership with Volvo to enable the next level of safe self driving and we are excited. What I'm excited about is real driver out of the loop operation. The differences between the autonomy that's available today, and what we're gonna be offering.
It'll be restricted to highway driving and you're going to see more and more of a geo fence or operating in a reduced, what we call operational domain, in highways, but I'm personally very much looking forward to being able to get into a car, I love driving. I absolutely love driving, but I hate to commute and if you can drive yourself onto the highway, and then enable a true driver out of the loop operation and you're doing that mundane drive on a highway up, I-95 up the East Coast or down the 101, or down the 5 and you can literally turn on autonomy and let the car be controlled that's gonna be transformational. It's something I'm really excited about.
Tom Hausken: You make it sound kind of like a more advanced cruise control where the trucker or the consumer gets it to the restricted area and then it takes it from there.
Jason Eichenholz: Well, I think it's a whole new level above. There are adaptive cruise controls as Driver Assistance features today, but that requires the driver to be in control of the car at all times,, driver in the loop. The driver is ultimately responsible, the driver needs to be touching the steering wheel every once in a while, some auto manufacturers put a camera and make sure the driver is looking at the road.
If you think about how limited autonomy is today, if you have to have a camera, looking at the driver to ensure that the driver is paying attention, is that really autonomy? I don't think so. It's a driver assistance feature.
I'm talking about the ability to take a nap and not pay attention. The car is in control of itself.
Tom Hausken: Level five?
Jason Eichenholz: No, level four.
Tom Hausken: Thank you for clarifying that.
Jason Eichenholz: That’s because you're limiting the operational domain, you're limiting it to highway autonomy. Over time, what I think will happen for drivers is you will see systems like ours, and you'll see the operational domain expand and expand so everyone's so focused on the ability to not drive a car, you don't own a car. I think what you're going to see is people that have cars that have full driver out of the loop experiences so they can take a nap, they can watch a movie that can be going down the highway and be safe.
At the same time, they're not gonna be able to drive around the corner, you know when they're sleeping and that's perfectly acceptable to a large percentage of people
Tom Hausken: You said 2022, so that's that's relatively soon. I was thinking that you're about to say that you'll see it, with the trucks first and in 10 years maybe the automakers will start doing this into production. But you're saying that Volvo is really moving along on that.
Jason Eichenholz: The Next Generation spot to platform is going to have a module architecture and you're going to see our hardware seamlessly integrated into the roof of the vehicle on the Volvo platform and starting with that LIDAR seamlessly integrated in 2022.
Tom Hausken: Wow, it's exciting.
Let's see if we could pivot a little bit and talk about your OSA affiliation. you've been involved with the Optical Society, starting as a student chapter President, while an undergraduate at Rensselaer in Troy, New York, helping to launch that chapter.
If you could tell us about your experience with the chapter and how it led to other volunteer activities within the society. I wasn't familiar myself with the how far back you go with OSA. You had been a student representative on the membership and an education services Council. Served as a technical group chair, technical division chair and also on OSA’s meetings committee, so maybe a few words about that experience.
Jason Eichenholz: I was really fortunate to have some really great mentors in my career as an undergrad at RPI as well as in grad school from Industry. But as an undergrad, we started a OSA chapter, Rensselaer grew the chapter, and that got me more actively involved as a student. That student tie in was very early in my career and very pivotal in my career because I started meeting some really great people on the various committees. So then I became the student representative on the MES, or Membership and Education Services Council.
That interaction was really pivotal because it just exposed me to things I didn't even know about in Career paths, technology, decision making and leadership.
And then there was sort of a gap, I graduated and I had all these things, and I was no longer a student. That allowed me to work with the societies to say, hey, we need an early career pathway for people that are early in their careers. Most of the people that serve on these technical group chairs or division chairs or the meetings committee or the finance committee are late in their career, they've established themselves and they've earned that position.
How do you find somebody early in the career that wants to be actively involved, but hasn't developed the technical skills, the leadership skills, the credentials to be a fellow, you know, if you look at the gap, you know, we're talking about 1995, even earlier when I was an undergrad I graduate ‘93, I was actively involved in this society, you're talking about a 15-20 year gap before I became a fellow. How do you address that gap as a society?
Now, partially because of my experience, you have these early career initiatives to start getting people more actively involved.
Tom Hausken: Yeah, we have an Ambassadors program now, and some of these other things that I think a lot of early-career people say, they're focused on their job, and they say why I don't know how I could really contribute at this point, but there's always something to do. And I think even if you show up and you start off just welcoming people and doing those sort of things you find things to do and you really learn a lot at the beginning, maybe it's all confusing, but after a while, it starts to come together and that's how you start so, thank you for that.
Jason Eichenholz: It allows you to build social capital within the photonics community, whether it's any society, but within the community in general and you're meeting interesting people. And you never know where that volunteer time that you're spending, whether it's like I did as a technical group chair or technical division chair or on the meetings council, you never know how that interaction can be helpful for other people, or for you. You never know. That's the great thing about it.
Tom Hausken: We are a large and global community, OSA has 23,000 members and yet we're not so large. It sometimes seems like a very small world, you come across people again and again.
You were elected an OSA fellow, the fellows are a diverse group of OSA members who've served with distinction and the advancement of optics and photonics. How has your involvement with OSA impacted your professional career and those of others who you've supported over the years, like students and early career career professionals?
Jason Eichenholz: Well, I think that getting a Fellow was one of the highest honors in my career, something I never expected, given my career path, which was a non traditional path. I wasn't trying to be a professor at the University. I wasn't going down that academic path.
I was most interested in the commercialization of photonics technology. I was, even as an undergrad, interested in that and had joint projects. I was doing building and you know making holograms in my basement in high school, but from a very early stage was very applied and I knew from 10th grade that I wanted to be in lasers and optics.
So fast forward 25 years and you become an OSA fellow. It was a true honor for me. It was also night nice because it was really paving the way for more industrial or more commercial people to have a pathway for getting an OSA fellow. So it's affected my career in that it's opened up other pathways for people that are following a similar path and to within the OSA show that there are additional pathways, both for careers but also for meetings.
When I was not part of the meetings council and moving things forward we established an Applied Industrial Optics conference. A conference I started at, to the committee I said this is something we need to do to be more applied.
And then to give a Light the Future plenary lecture at the conference I actually helped create sort of brought it all full circle. So now I'm giving lectures that I never would have expected to give within the technical societies and these plenary and invited talks, at the same time remembering the roots but also helping create those meetings. It's been quite a journey.
Tom Hausken: I remember when you got that we were really pleased to see that go to you. So you've had quite a journey, some of the companies that you've been at many people listening may know you from some of these places. Laser Energetics, Etech, Newport, Ocean Optics and then Halma, Open Photonics which you started in 2013, Luminar, and you've had some fairly prominent positions at some of those companies.
How did that whole journey prepare you for Luminar? You went off and you started Open Photonics around that time, so that was obviously a big step. How would you summarize that journey, getting to this point?
Jason Eichenholz: I’d call it a roller coaster.
I worked for a company Laser Energetics, we got SPIRs in 1998 on kilowatt class fiber lasers. Tony Siegman, from Stanford, was part of that program. We had neat ideas and cane guided fibers. ‘98, think about kilowatt class fiber lasers, way back then.
But then that company ran out of money, and I lost a job. Okay, now you’ve been laid off, you know, first first job out of graduate school, you get laid off. Okay, so then I got into this thing called telecom, same thing happened in 2001.
Okay, it's a little bit of a roller coaster.
But what's really interesting is that if you look at my career I then ended up working and got a phone call from one of my best mentors I could have asked for, Gary Spiegel at Newport, and he said, hey, I saw you got laid off, would you come work for us, but I can't hire you because we've just laid off thousands of people. Would you be a consultant for a period of time?
I was dabbling with entrepreneurship. I wasn't ready to be an entrepreneur, I'd figured out that in a company that I tried to start called Photonic Displays it didn't work well, didn't understand it, and I took this job at Newport. It was because of the social capital I had with Gary from the time I was an undergrad and the team that I met at Newport. I'd also work with Coherent. In graduate school I built a demo in the Newport booth where we made a titanium sapphire laser and showed that off as an experiment and we worked with Coherent some leaders there.
I also worked with a company called Spectra Physics and they had sponsored part of my PhD program. I worked with Jim Kafka there, who is a luminary in the field of solid state lasers, and they have sponsored part of my PhD. To then go fast forward when I'm part of the Newport team, and then we're acquiring Spectra Physics. Now I'm working for Spectra Physics in Newport.
This is the roller coaster part of it.
I had ended up getting a job offer, and getting an approach to work at Ocean Optics, right in my backyard, and I was tired of traveling 150,000 miles a year and to move back from the marketing and strategy side, back into the technology area, which was really my core. But they wanted somebody that could understand markets and technology. I got a great opportunity working in Ocean Optics, Ocean Optics was hired by Halma, I went through the leadership development program, they promoted me into a position -created a position for me within Halma, in the health optics division working with Avo Photonics and Ocean Optics and Ocean Thin Films. The pink pixel tech and lab sphere and fiber guide as well as all the health optics companies. So it was a great, great position but the entrepreneurship calling just kept calling me. I saw the need within the industry to try and do something different.
So I read a book on open innovation that said this is how you innovate, this is how you develop technology, this is how you address new markets and the biggest challenge you have as a tech leader or an entrepreneur later is when you can see around corners you see opportunities, you see things, and you can't convince your leadership to go do it. I had those problems at Newport and Spectra Physics. I had those problems within Ocean Optics. I was frustrated that I couldn't get companies to fund technology and market opportunities that I could see, but others couldn’t.
That's why I started Open Photonics as a different way to innovate. Around the same time I was working more and more with Austin. We were co-developing and we were doing work for Luminar within open photonics, and we saw an opportunity for self driving and for LIDAR before anybody else really did. There was only one solution out there; the spinning buckets on top of cars and and it didn't meet the needs
It didn't meet the needs of the industry and we had the opportunity and I had a co-founder that also had this vision, we had this vision to transform autonomy and we have to leverage my decades of experience with what he was building out together and it was a great partnership. We're a great team. He's a phenomenal entrepreneur and this growing leader and, you know, here we are. That's quite a journey. It could just take all that have a publicly traded company.
Tom Hausken: By the way, I'd like to point out, I remember when you are giving talks on open photonics and the concept of open innovation and anybody who's interested in that I encourage you to go out and take a look at it, just the concept in general.
Your journey reminds me to be patient. When a lot of people, coming out early in the career, especially if you get laid off as you said you did early on, you get discouraged, and it's maybe a little bit hard to counsel patience, but if you're in this business long enough, you see a lot of things come and go and you gather a lot of experience and knowledge and your network expands and it starts to come together. So it just may take a little while but then it all starts to come together so thank you.
Jason Eichenholz: You and I know Randy Hyler, another great mentor of mine from Newport and to this day we remain friends. Same thing with Gary, Randy would kind of come in and coach me and go, okay, you know, Jason, we had a win. And I think for the people early in their career they get frustrated. They want to have a big impact, sometimes they work for really large companies and I think Gary's description of my job, early in my career, in a company as large as Newport within the industry and Spectra Physics, it was my job to be the tugboat.
If you could just nudge, nudge the battleship aircraft carrier, just a little bit in the right direction. That was success, and that experience of learning to lead others via influence rather than actually being the leader. When I see these young people, they want to be the captain of the ship on day one and it just doesn't work that way. I wasn't ready to be the captain of the ship, but I could be a tugboat.
At the time I learned the skills to become the captain of a ship and drive the ship and set the direction with all the responsibility that comes with that. So you're right. Patience. Patience is really key. But leverage the opportunities you have along the way.
Tom Hausken: Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, those tugboats keep the big, the big ships from crashing into the Bay Bridge and play a very important role.
Jason Eichenholz: Yeah, exactly.
Tom Hausken: Well, final question, you know, the community well, any advice for others starting a company and optics and photonics?
Jason Eichenholz: So if you're starting a company, the first thing is make sure there's a market for the product you're developing the most common error I see is that people are developing technology for technology's sake, rather than finding an unmet market need and then applying technology to it.
We joke that we've discovered 2,000 ways not to build a LiDAR system, the reason is we understood the market need and we took the solution that met the market need. That's one, make sure there's a market for it.
Second is, you won't be successful without a team, and you won't be successful without partners outside your team, specifically within the optics and photonics community. Which then goes back to my part about as a student and in your career build social capital, build your network. Build the people around you that when you call them up and say, “Hey, I need this. You don't make it, I wanted, I need something different. I need something custom.” they're going to pay attention to you because of something you've done with them in the past. Versus the alternative, if you haven't been good to people, and you have a bad reputation, it doesn't help.
I spent decades building relationships with people without expecting to get paid back at all. It all comes forward and that's it.
Tom Hausken: It’s interesting to hear that. That's where OSA sees our role, also to help provide that glue or that ecosystem for people to network and get to know each other and see what trade shows and opportunities, their products and so forth.
Jason Eichenholz: Absolutely, it was pivotal to my career with those activities to be able to form those relationships.
Tom Hausken: That's all the time we have for now, but thank you, Jason Eichenholz for taking some time with us to talk about Luminar’s public offering, your journey volunteering, we hope that you have a great 2021 and we look forward to following Luminar’s progress. Thanks, Jason.
Jason Eichenholz: Thanks, Tom, thanks for the opportunity. We really appreciate it.
Tom Hausken: You're welcome.