Why we invested…
A little over two years ago, the founder of an autonomous transportation company reached out to me because he wanted to pick my brain on a few things. His concept (over email) was interesting so we agreed to meet at a coffee shop in Los Altos. I found him wearing the blue flannel shirt he told me to look for, but this meeting would not be the typical startup introduction pitch. Without a deck and without a cofounder, but with strong insights into the commercial trucking industry, it was clear to me that he was a man with a mission. And so began my relationship with Stefan, CEO of Starsky Robotics.
Our first meeting was instantly interesting. I know a lot about automation in the context of the automotive industry, and I had a basic thesis on how to approach automation for commercial vehicles. But there was much more to learn, particularly around the labor and business dynamics of commercial trucking. Stefan filled in all the gaps with the research and thinking he had already done. For the first time, I saw the complete picture around autonomous trucking, and it was exciting.
Over the last decade, billions of dollars have been invested in automation for the automotive industry by traditional OEMs, their suppliers, and new startups working on bits and pieces of new hardware and software. While it is clear that automation has the long term potential to remove labor and improve safety in all transportation markets, serious barriers still exist for mass market automotive deployment, including cost, maintenance, logistics, design, systems engineering, and infrastructure integration. Focusing on automation for trucking offers a clear solution to a major labor market pain-point in the broader economy. Trucking is by far the largest mode of transportation for commercial freight in the US, but faces a shortage of long-haul drivers who are generally limited to 11 hours of driving per day by DOT regulations. Easier mechanical and electrical integration and fewer constraints on design/aesthetics mean that existing trucks can be retrofitted for immediate operation. The highway environment represents the vast majority of truck-miles and limits the scope of operation of the system, thus improving safety and providing a faster path to validation. In my view, all of this put together represents a massive opportunity to optimize a market with poor asset utilization and a constrained labor force.
By the time I had met Stefan, he was already deep into analyzing the unit economics of trucking. He was passionate about the opportunity to build a real business in a pragmatic and constructive way, while fully aware of the regulatory risks, important safety considerations, and labor market dynamics he would need to navigate. What he was missing was a technical cofounder. Not long after we first met, Stefan found Kartik — someone that could match his passion in bringing automation to trucking. I signed up as an early angel investor and advisor to be part of Stefan and Kartik’s journey.
It’s been phenomenal to watch Starsky’s technical and operational progress over the last two years. Starsky has persevered through some tough technical challenges in system architecture, safety, sensors, perception, computer vision, and controls. Just a few weeks ago, Starsky completed their first drive on a stretch of closed road with no human in the cab, demonstrating what the future of trucking will look like. Meanwhile, Starsky has built and is operating as a trucking company, hauling freight for revenue on a consistent basis in Florida. I am proud to have played a small part in helping Starsky along the way.
Two years after meeting Stefan over coffee, I now have my own startup of sorts, Catapult Ventures, and I’m pleased that Catapult is contributing to funding the next chapter of Starsky Robotics’ journey to “Keepin’ on Truckin’.”