Israel has become a global auto tech industry leader. Mobileye was sold to Intel for $15.3 billion, and notice is taken of the growing number of Israeli startups in the industry mostly when they complete financing rounds. The latest of these, Oryx Vision, has now completed a $50 million round.
Oryx Vision, originally called PlanXwell, was founded in 2009 by VP R&D David Ben-Bassat, its technological brain. After its technology matured, the company changed its name in 2016, and started raising money. The company raised $17 million in its A round 15 months ago, highlighting the growing popularity of auto tech companies. As far as is known, the company has used only half of the money it raised in that round.
A check by "Globes" shows that Oryx Vision's current financing round is the seventh largest this year.
Oryx Vision has developed a system based on light detection and radar (LiDAR) technology for autonomous vehicles. LiDAR measures distances by using a laser beam to illuminate the object. In the case of autonomous vehicles, this means measuring the distance of various objects from vehicles (such as a stone falling from a truck driving in front of an autonomous vehicle). The technology, which dates to 1960, is common in airborne and land systems, mainly for military uses, in mapping the topography of fields in agriculture, and in mapping ruins beneath vegetation in archeology.
The idea for the company originated with Ben-Bassat, an electronics engineer who began his career as an academic reservist in the Ministry of Defense. During his military service, he specialized in electro-optical technologies. After being demobilized, he was among the founders of a company named RFWaves, which developed wireless communications technology based on radio frequencies. The company was acquired by semiconductor firm Vishay, and Ben-Bassat continued as VP R&D at Vishay for five years, before striking off on his own.
Ben-Bassat worked on Oryx Vision's technology for six years with his own money and a little help from angel investors. He met Rani Wellingstein in late 2015, who joined as a founder and CEO. Like Ben-Bassat, Wellingstein, 51, has experienced more than one exit, and the last one was quite substantial: Intucell, which he cofounded, was sold to Cisco Systems for $475 million, and Wellingstein came away with $83 million - a huge exit for a single entrepreneur in the local high-tech industry. "After the sale of Intucell, I joined Cisco, because I saw it as an opportunity to enter the engine room of a big ship," Wellingstein told "Globes" after Oryx Vision's latest financing round. "I was at Cisco for three years, and then I wanted something new and really big. I looked for a very important technology, and so I came to David (Ben-Bassat, T.T.). Together, we realized that what he had developed was a unique technology, and we looked for a big enough industry in which we could apply it. We wanted to build a really big company, even if it took a long time. We have patience. We're not looking for an exit in two or three years."
"Globes": Maybe that is because you have already had an exit - in your case, a fairly big one.
Wellingstein: "It's true - that's a consideration. I never really spoke about my exit from Intucell, but I admit that it enables me to take my time about building Oryx Vision."
Another layer of sensors
It is easy to compare Oryx Vision to Mobileye, and to at least try to explain the difference between the two companies. Mobileye is a global leader in developing computer vision and artificial intelligence, data analysis, and location and mapping systems in order to assist drivers and autonomous driving. The company's camera-based systems are in the advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) category - the basis for an autonomous vehicle. Mobileye's system does not include LiDAR technology. A perusal of Mobileye's documents shows that the company regards this technology as a potential risk: "Although we believe that monocular camera processing, the technology behind our ADAS system, will continue to be the standard for ADAS systems, it is possible that other sensory modules, such as LiDAR, could become more acceptable in the market," Mobileye writes.
On the other hand, Mobileye says, "We do not believe that the new generations of LiDAR technology are likely to replace the camera as the leading sensor in the ADAS system. On the contrary; they will become a third layer of sensors." Wellingstein spoke along the same lines, saying, "Autonomous driving systems requires three layers of sensors: a camera, radar, and a laser scanner - in other words, a LiDAR system. When it's sunny, the camera is dazzled, and the radar therefore functions in its place in warning about an approaching object. When the radar doesn't work, the laser scanner goes into action. The entire auto industry is therefore chasing after LiDAR technology. It's clear to everyone that it's needed."
So theoretically, a vehicle with a Mobileye ADAS system could also have Oryx Vision's LiDAR system. Are the systems complementary, rather than competing?
"They are complementary."
Did the Mobileye exit contribute to the success of your financing round?
"No, absolutely not. Mobileye's exit is a nice story, and I think that Oryx Vision benefited from it in two ways. First of all, Mobileye proved that a tier-2 auto industry company could attain substantial profitability and big numbers. That's rare, and Mobileye is therefore a game changer. Secondly, Mobileye proved that it can be done from Israel, even though Israel does not have an auto industry like in Germany or the US. Still, the reason why our financing round succeeded was not because the investors said, 'Wow, Mobileye!' or 'Here's the next Mobileye.' No, our investors are professionals with their feet on the ground."
Oryx Vision currently has 30 employees - all of them physicists, optical engineers, antenna designers, software developers, or signals processing experts. The company also uses the services of a Bar Ilan University nano-technology laboratory, and some of its employees are graduates of that university.
Wellingstein says, "The photoelectric cells method limits the wavelengths, and the industry tried to deal with the challenge for years, until David Ben-Bassat solved it. Our microscopic antennas can receive any wavelength, so our system facilitates coherent detection that meets all the stringent performance requirements of autonomous vehicles."
Isn't sending a lot of laser beams liable to become hazardous to the environment or too complicated to decode if there are a lot of autonomous vehicles on the road?
"That's a really good question. There are a number of constraints in sending out laser beams. One is the safety of the eye, and another is interference of the beams with each other. A vehicle can send a pulse and get back a pulse sent from another vehicle. That's liable to be a problem."
How many of the company's sensors should be installed on a vehicle?
"Between one and six, depending on its degree of autonomy, which is decided by the auto manufacturer."
Will the company's revenue be a function of the number of sensors?
"Yes. We believe that we'll start selling systems in 2022-2023, and that the use of LiDAR technology will become more common by then."
What stage has development of the system reached?
"Early this year, we displayed our technology to a number of leading auto industry players, component suppliers, and auto manufacturers. We already have several cooperation agreements with these players. We expect to have a system by the middle of next year that can be installed on vehicles, and we'll start delivering such systems for testing on vehicles."
Will the customers be suppliers of components to the auto manufacturers, as in the case of Mobileye?
"Yes, tier-1 suppliers."
What is the company's biggest challenge?
"We have a lot of difficult engineering work, but we have laid the foundation."
Competition with Google
Oryx Vision is not the only company applying LiDAR technology to autonomous driving systems. Google is the company's most prominent competitor. The importance of this technology for Google is showed by the lawsuit it filed against Uber for allegedly stealing its LiDAR secrets after acquiring Otto - a company founded by ex-Google employees. In addition to Google, there is a US company named Velodyne, which raised $150 million in its A round a year ago from US auto giant Ford and Chinese Internet giant Baidu, among others. Another company in this market is Israeli company Innoviz, which has raised $9 million so far.
Wellingstein says that his company's competitors are mainly companies that are developing first generation LiDAR systems, while Oryx Vision's system is a 2G system. He does say, however, "It is possible that in the short term, they will launch a 2G product before us, but it will probably have limited capabilities in comparison with ours. In our opinion, our technology is substantially superior to the existing alternatives."
Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - www.globes-online.com - on August 9, 2017
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