Lidar startup goes public, makes founder a billionaire

Lidar Startup Goes Public, Makes Founder a Billionaire

Luminar used a special purpose acquisition company to avoid a traditional IPO.

Luminar founder Austin Russell has become one of the youngest self-made billionaires after his lidar company debuted on public markets on Thursday. Russell, 25, was just 17 when he founded Luminar in 2012. Shares of Luminar rose above $30 a share on Friday, a massive 43 percent gain for the day on top of big gains on Thursday.

Luminar has emerged as one of the leading companies in the fast-growing lidar industry.  Carmakers are expected to begin offering lidar as an advanced option for their vehicles in the next few years to enable better driver-assistance technology. Right now, lidar companies are vying to win contracts to supply these sensors.

Luminar had a major win in May when it signed a deal with Volvo to supply lidar sensors for vehicles starting in 2022. It was one of the first such deals in the industry.

More recently, Luminar struck a deal to supply lidar sensors to Mobileye, the Intel subsidiary that supplies many of the camera-based driver assistance systems in today’s cars. Luminar is supplying sensors for Mobileye’s self-driving prototypes, not production vehicles, so it wasn’t a huge deal on its own. But if Mobileye winds up building its next-generation technology around Luminar’s lidar—far from a sure thing—it could lead to a lot of Luminar lidar sales in the future.

While industry leader Velodyne has traditionally made 360-degree spinning units designed to sit on a vehicle roof, Luminar’s sensors are fixed in place and cover a 120 degree horizontal field of view in front of a vehicle.

Long range is viewed as essential for advanced self-driving systems, and Luminar claims its lidar has an industry-leading range of 250 meters. One reason for this is that its lasers operate at an unusual frequency. Most lidar sensors operate at around 900nm—largely because silicon-based lasers and sensors work well around this frequency. However, 900nm lasers are subject to strict power limits because they can damage the human retina.

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