Uptime Or Else (Why We Invested in SEEVA Technologies)
In the spring of 2017 we were introduced to the founding team of SEEVA Technologies through our role as mentors at Techstars Mobility. The team was accepted into the summer class in Detroit and when we met them, we admit their initial idea wasn’t something that fit the traditional pattern for a Trucks portfolio company. Their insight? They believed that cleaning and visibility were a core part of the future for autonomous vehicles. This was a bit different for us: we considered all the critical functions of highly automated vehicles — and by extension, much of its value — to be a locus of software and data.
But from SEEVA’s point of view, all of that sophisticated new technology can quickly come to a halt if it’s not running within its service envelope. Said more plainly: automated vehicles can’t run if they can’t see. SEEVA keeps those vehicles running by keeping sensors and windshields clean.
This notion of a service envelope is an important financial consideration for fleets. The first batch of automated vehicles has a high unit cost. Some estimates for Uber and Waymo’s test vehicles are on the order of $300,000 and that doesn’t even count the cost of the well-paid engineers riding along as safety drivers.
We think of expensive AVs like Formula 1 cars — you don’t want to waste any time in the pits doing service. They need to be on the road earning money or the business doesn’t really work. With that frame of mind, ‘uptime’ is as important as any piece of kit on the vehicle.
SEEVA, therefore, is building a portfolio of uptime solutions. They are becoming a Tier 1 supplier with a wide range of visibility solutions and their tagline is ‘visibility for mobility.’ It’s quite a simple and elegant way to describe what they do.
A real business, with or without autonomy
One of the problems with a number of automated vehicles startups is that they need a lot of other things to happen in the marketplace for them to have a real business. I refer to this as the underwater salad problem (‘Once someone else solves underwater living, our underwater salads will sell like crazy’). The best antidote against this is to build a valuable business today, but put yourself in the position to reap rewards even as they have material penetration.
The cleaning visibility market has such characteristics: it is large today (both as original equipment in vehicles leaving the factory as well as in the aftermarket), and becomes even more valuable in an environment of highly automated vehicles, each festooned with sensors. Today’s automotive visibility market is a $30B book of business, which puts it roughly at the same level as automotive brakes in terms of size.
SEEVA’s first product does not rely on automation. It is a device that uses excess engine heat to warm washer fluid. This helps drivers in cold-weather states de-ice their windshield faster, while people in warm-weather areas can de-bug in about 1/2 the time. As automakers are looking to save weight in vehicles, this can reduce the overall washer tank reservoir size.
Downstream from this product, and a few more that focus on windshield cleaning, they will tackle the idea of cleaning camera and LiDAR sensor housings. While some of the cleaning methods will be mechanical and chemical, other prototypes in the SEEVA lab will use hydrophobic coatings and other interesting material approaches. In short, SEEVA is going to build a number of cleaning solutions using a number of technologies.
Key Risks for SEEVA
The risks for SEEVA involve a number of fascinating and difficult challenges related to the architecture of the marketplace. First, SEEVA is selling visibility solutions to original equipment manufacturers, but those customers don’t necessarily buy visibility from one supplier. That is to say, there isn’t someone at Toyota or Ford who owns all of the visibility engineering — it is more fragmented, where the engineer in charge of wiper blades doesn’t really work with the team thinking of solutions to keep their camera and sensor housings clean. In this regard SEEVA will face an intricate and complex sales challenge. It is SEEVA’s goal that visibility engineering gets centralized, but today’s customer behavior does not reflect that.
The other key risk for SEEVA will be its portfolio construction. The opportunity for the company is to be the definitive leader in visibility, which could mean making products as disparate as heated washer solutions, hydrophobic coatings, wiper blades and so on. The challenge is that these solutions will require a number of separate and unique skills and R&D budgets to bring them to fruition. SEEVA could develop too many products, which could spread its R&D group too thin, or develop too few products and let its competitors eat its lunch. This balancing of its product strategy will be a key driver for the company’s success.
The SEEVA team is made up of some great people with a ton of experience in autos, and the other investors in the round are really a powerful group, including Santosh Sankar at Dynamo.vc and Semil Shah at Haystack.vc. The CEO, Diane Lansinger, is a remarkable leader and has some great talent around her, including her COO, Derrick Redding (former CFO at Johnson Controls Japan), her skunkworks Chief Engineer and co-founder Jere Lansinger (30 years at Chrysler, dozens of automotive patents and most notably, Diane’s father!). In the next quarter the company will announce its new CTO — a very big get from a talent and product development perspective. We look forward to helping SEEVA de-risk its opportunity in the coming year and believe there is a big opportunity ahead to be the leader in visibility, both today and in a highly automated future.
Learn more about SEEVA Technologies here.