Q&A: Smart Radar System CEO Paul Kim on Being an Industry Pioneer in 4D Image Radar
“From the beginning, Hemi was very active in trying to introduce us to the world. Adding Hemi’s connections opens up a whole new world for us.”
Radar sensors are an important part of automotive safety, helping to reduce blind spots and prevent collisions. Smart Radar System (SRS) is a leader in automotive and industrial radar vision solutions, providing 4D image radar, corner radar, and radar module customization services. For over three years, the company has been specializing in radar technology, and their 4-D image radar is expected to be in mass production by the end of 2020.
This technology will help to advance autonomous vehicles, IoT, robots, securities, and drones. SRS also develops RF antenna designs, hardware modules, radar signal processing algorithms, and software API. They strive to satisfy the changing demands of complex environments through their use of radar signal processing and algorithms based on machine learning and deep learning. SRS CEO, Paul Kim, spoke with Hemi Ventures about his experiences as an entrepreneur in a competitive niche industry.
Hemi: SRS is one of the few production-ready radar startups and is recognized by TI as a top design house in automotive and industry applications. How did SRS achieve so much in a year?
Paul: There was a two-year incubation period before the actual formation of the company. Yongjae, the co-founder and CTO, was able to experiment with the analog and digital industry. Startups sometimes try to do everything, but focus is key. We didn’t take a bottom-up approach. We actually cut down every other business avenue to focus on image radar. We took a top-down approach by looking at where the industry is heading, the competition and opportunities, and our internal capabilities. During the first six months, R&D revolved around our patented non-uniform linear antenna array design. This concept worked well because, with fewer chipsets and sophisticated antenna design, we can significantly reduce the number of virtual channels and chips needed for near Lidar level angular resolution.
H: SRS is already signing contracts with companies in Europe, the U.S., and Asia. What do you think of the global market for radar sensors?
P: Radar has been dominated by big companies like Bosch, Delphi, and Continental, however, the Lidar sector is crowded with startups. Including SRS, there are currently multiple startups working on image radar. It’s still in the early stages, and the demand is peaking, but it’s different on different continents. Japan is focused on robots and automotive tractors. The U.S. is looking at it for autonomous driving, special trucks, and construction machinery. Europe has a mixture of industrial applications and autonomous driving.
H: As one of the industry pioneers and day-to-day operators of the business, how do you think the sensor market (automotive and industry application) will evolve in the next 3–5 years?
P: The trend is to look for sensors that can classify objects. We think image radar with affordable pricing will play a key role. I partially agree with Elon Musk that Lidar is replaceable. If you looked at the spectrum of sensors in terms of visible light, from right to left, it would be image, laser (Lidar), and then infrared. You can interpret this to mean that Lidar is necessary since it’s in the middle, or you can interpret it to mean that camera and radar can potentially cover everything. I believe all sensors will have their own roles as part of sensor fusion, but no one sensor will dominate.
The difficulty in developing image radar, however, is around the analog system. You need very experienced engineers in this niche area. Previously radar could tell you simply whether there was an object or not. Now, with image radar, you can know whether that object is a tree or a person. Privacy is still protected, so you know what it is, but not who it is. That’s a sweet spot.
H: You started your engineering career at Cisco Systems and AT&T Lab, followed by a position as a senior executive at LG and a professor at Seoul National University. How did these various experience lead you to start SRS?
P: I quit Cisco in 2001 to start my own company with seed money but after 9/11 happened, I accepted a position with AT&T. Later, I was recruited by Samsung since my Ph.D. at UT Austin is sponsored by the Korean government. Next, I worked as the head of business units at LG Group Holding company, which is where I gained experience in business development and incubation. These experiences all helped to lead me to where I am today.
My brother, Yongjae, is more hands-on and technical and founded SRS. Then he persuaded me to become the full-time CEO because he recognized that I complement his strengths and weaknesses. Since then, I have turned down multiple offers from big corporations because I want to lead by example and show that small companies can permeate, especially in technology.
Learning from my various experiences, I now have a holistic approach to running a company, and I know how every stage works. For instance, one lesson I learned is that generating revenue without a quality product is a disaster. We strive to take the time to make sure all products are up to our standards.
H: When I first met Yongjae, I was surprised to learn that both he and Jong-il, the chief scientist, are serial entrepreneurs having founded CBCline, Bluebird, Hansung Sysco, Maxian, Cross Digital, and Humax. What is it like to work with such an experienced entrepreneurial team?
P: We have a team of outliers who are willing to take risks. They are like random particles, with very high entropy. My role is more like a conductor, to carve out the project and make sure we are heading in the right direction. Engineers want to do everything, so as CEO, it is my job to make sure everyone is focused and stretch the team. We need to earn our daily bread and also shoot for the moon.
H: SRS plans to start a Silicon Valley office soon, and engineers here will be working with the Korean team. How will the cross-country collaboration support SRS’ growth?
P: Engineers in the U.S. are better with algorithms, while the Korean team is better with execution. It’s important to have engineers here because I want the Silicon Valley team to inspire the Korean team. We’re planning to start a team here by next CES, which is when we will announce our production-ready products.
H: Do you have a personal mission that led you to found SRS?
P: I believe in starting my own journey. Mobility is a big arena where the Koreans do not play much yet. If we can become a platform, we can inspire companies in Korea. For instance, we have shown that you can be an international company from the very beginning. That’s a very rare mindset for Korean startups. Our vision is to be a cross-platform evangelist for small startups.
H: What gets you excited to go to work every day?
P: I am inspired by the enthusiasm of the people I work with. Once you see their faces, you know their passion. I feel like I’m making history from nothing. Our product may save lives, so it’s a good cause, and it’s high-tech with good returns as well. Where else can you find this kind of combination?
Also, working with my brother is fun. We’ve always gotten along, and there are many things I can learn from him.
H: What would people be surprised to learn about you?
P: I’m usually very low-key, so people are surprised when they realize that I have a background in many subjects and experience in two cultures. I look more like a student than a professor, so people don’t expect me to have the education and background that I do.
H: What’s your favorite memory of working with Hemi?
P: From the beginning, Hemi was very active in trying to introduce us to the world. This is not a custom in Korean tradition. VCs in Korea are more siloed and focused strictly on their investment. Hemi is a good fit for us because even though I do have my own connections, they are not enough. Adding Hemi’s connections opens up a whole new world for us.