Q&A: Sense Photonics CEO, Scott Burroughs on Being at the Forefront of LiDAR Technology
“Some investors are very passive; they’ll put their money in and then hope for the best. Some are too helpful, in the sense that they’re trying to influence things in a strong way. But everything that I’ve seen from Hemi so far has been just that right balance.”
Sense Photonics is developing the next generation of LiDAR and 3D sensor solutions that can be used in autonomous vehicles, industrial equipment, and other applications. The company’s cutting-edge, fully solid-state LiDAR system uses advanced 3D imaging technology designed to improve performance and safety requirements in automotive and industrial applications. Rather than using complex scanning solutions to create an image pixel-by-pixel, Sense Photonics’ technology captures the entire frame at once.
Hemi recently invested in the company’s $26M series A round together with Shell Ventures, Samsung Ventures, and others. Sense Photonics CEO, Scott Burroughs, spoke with Hemi Ventures about his experiences working with this dynamic and revolutionary LiDAR technology.
What is your personal mission that led you to found Sense Photonics?
I wanted to do something that matters, something fun, and something meaningful that would have value for society, our investors, and our employees. The best part is the knowledge that we have the potential to save lives. If we can save even one life, wouldn’t that be wonderful? And if you can save a lot more than that, you can go home every day feeling good about yourself.
What makes you excited to go to work every day?
I enjoy the technology, but I enjoy working with people even more. I like helping people learn and advance their careers. There’s nothing more rewarding than hiring somebody fairly young and inexperienced and helping them to become very successful in their career. And the technology’s fun. Working with customers and solving customer’s problems is fun.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I enjoy the adventure of getting out on the trails on my mountain bike and riding fast. The adrenaline really flows. It’s a good way to forget about work and relax your mind. If you stay in the office working all the time, that’s not necessarily going to give you the best results. You need to give your brain a break so you can come back again with a fresh perspective.
Sense Photonics is building the only solid-state, flash LiDAR that enables high resolution without compromising frame rate. How did you achieve this?
It’s mostly a function of our laser emitter technology, which is part of our core technology that allows us to generate a lot of high-power light and to do it in an eye manner. That’s what gives us a long-range and wide field of view, which is something that other flash LiDAR companies don’t have. We print all of the lasers in one fell swoop using our core technology, and we don’t need any wire bonding. Instead, we use thin-film technology. That makes it very robust and also very inexpensive and easy to manufacture.
LiDAR is a heated market, and companies are taking different approaches. Sense’s “camera-inspired” design captures the entire frame at once and is highly manufacturable, small, and low-cost. In what direction do you think LiDAR manufacturing is heading?
Our LiDAR system is essentially a camera that provides depth information and intensity information for each pixel. Our LiDAR system can then generate a depth map and a monochromatic picture in each frame. You can easily integrate an RGB camera with LiDAR in the same box. Overlaying the RGB image with the LiDAR depth image is something that for us is a very straightforward thing to do. Automobile manufacturers and Tier-1s are very excited about it, so we think that there’s a pretty strong future in that.
Sense LiDAR can uniquely meet the rigorous requirements for both automotive and industrial applications. As one of the industry pioneers, how do you think the LiDAR market will evolve in the next 3–5 years?
We are seeing the market start to segment. It started with long-range, 200-meter sensors and has evolved to mid-range LiDAR with a wide field of view that can mitigate blind spots around a vehicle. In-vehicle is another market that’s emerging for monitoring drivers and the behavior of others in the automobile, which is a very short range but also a very wide field of view. I believe that as the costs come down and as the capabilities increase, new markets will continue to emerge for LiDAR.
You have deep manufacturing and engineering experience and worked at multiple companies with successful exits. How did these experiences help with starting Sense?
I’ve learned over time that there are five attributes of a successful startup company.
- You need a good idea that is differentiating.
- You have to have a good, experienced leadership team.
- You have to have a strong engineering team that is technically deep, totally dedicated, and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
- You need a big market that’s growing fast. This helps in terms of valuations and fundraising, and ultimately, it helps in terms of an acquisition or an IPO.
- You need good investors. Hemi has been very supportive from the very beginning. They have introduced us to other investors and customers.
We co-invested with strategic investors like Shell and Samsung Ventures. What’s your strategy working with corporates in both mobility and other industrial sectors?
Our strategy is to diversify our portfolio of customers and opportunities. This way, we can generate revenue fairly quickly in the non-automotive sector and then learn and improve and become a well-oiled machine when it comes time for the automotive market to pick up and have some significant volume.
You have a very strong technical team that has worked together before. What is it like starting another venture together with bicoastal offices?
When you’re separated by distance, it’s even more important that everyone works together as a team. In North Carolina, we have our laser center of excellence, that’s where our core technology is. In San Francisco, we’ve got access to software and engineering people that come from the autonomous vehicle industry. We set up shop in the UK because of our next generation product where we want to go to longer ranges, and the worldwide center of expertise for these types of detectors is in Edinburgh, Scotland.
What’s your favorite memory of working with Hemi?
I remember when we presented our pitch to Amy, we set up our LiDAR system on the deck at Hemi’s office. Looking down, we were able to see pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and storefronts. I remember how amazed Amy was. That was a great moment because I knew she saw the value in what we had produced. Overall, I can’t say enough good things about Hemi. Some investors are very passive; they’ll put their money in and then hope for the best. Some are too helpful, in the sense that they’re trying to influence things in a strong way. But everything that I’ve seen from Hemi so far has been just that right balance.