Kodiak Robotics’ founder says tight focus on autonomous trucks is working

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Kodiak Robotics is one of the last private autonomous vehicles companies focused on trucking that is still standing. Nearly all the rest have been wooed by the public marketplace and the capital it can provide. But co-founder and CEO Don Burnette says the three-year-old company’s strategy of staying focused and small(er) is paying off.

It will be able to deploy a commercial-scale operation for about $500 million in funding, he says in the interview below. To put those go-to-market costs in perspective, that’s 10% of what Waymo has raised in external fundraising and less than 25% of newly publicly traded company TuSimple’s total fundraise.

Kodiak’s strategy is to take a specialized, hyperfocused approach to autonomous trucking that outsources a lot of tech, like data labeling, lidar, radar and mapping, to existing companies. Burnette, who was one of four founders of the self-driving truck startup Otto that Uber acquired, thinks this is a faster, cheaper and more efficient path to commercialization versus building out your own systems and teams.

The company is moving freight for commercial customers, dipping its toes in the market by working with technology partners within the existing ecosystem. Burnette says Kodiak’s Driver technology has achieved a level of maturity where it can handle anything the highway throws at it. In December, the startup achieved “disengagement-free deliveries” between Dallas and Houston, meaning the autonomous system didn’t have to be switched off for safety reasons.

The following interview, part of an ongoing series with founders who are building transportation companies, has been edited for length and clarity. 

You previously told me that Kodiak would need about $500 million in total funding to get to commercial driverless. You also said you’ve had some undisclosed funding rounds, but publicly, you’ve only raised $40 million. Can you still execute on your vision this far off?

Absolutely. We are always, as startups are, in fundraising mode. We’re always talking to investors. And there’s a lot of great things happening behind the scenes currently that we haven’t yet announced. We are growing, we’re hiring, if you can look to that as an indicator of the health of a company.

Our tech and our plan is really sound, and we are building up our commercialization efforts in a way that I think is going to be very exciting to the overall industry and to the market. We will need to raise more money, as you pointed out, that’s certainly no secret, but I think that we have multiple options to do that.

“Kodiak is one of the only remaining serious AV trucking companies still in the private sector, and so I think that gives us some advantages in a lot of ways.”

How do you intend to close that gap? Are you looking at venture capital, or maybe going for an IPO or SPAC?

We’re considering all of the above. It’s a constant conversation internally on what is the best path for Kodiak, what is the appetite of the various forms of investors and strategic relationships. Nothing is excluded.

The stock market is obviously very attractive and exciting. I think TuSimple has demonstrated that an IPO with the right set of metrics and the right set of momentum and partners is possible and can be successful. I think there’s also lots of opportunity within the VCs and the private markets. Kodiak is one of the only remaining serious AV trucking companies still in the private sector, and so I think that gives us some advantages in a lot of ways.

What’s your sense of the venture funding environment right now in autonomous? Is it harder now than it was, say, four years ago?

The appetite has changed. In particular, investors are more skeptical of timelines and promises. There is not this sense of Wild West excitement like there was four or five years ago, and that was the Golden Age of raising capital, certainly for earlier stage companies.

Kodiak was at the tail end of that age, and now the goalposts have changed, and the target investors have changed. It’s no longer the early-stage VCs that companies like Kodiak and others are talking to. It’s more of the growth-stage funds, and growth-stage funds look for different types of metrics. They look for commercial traction, product-market fit, users, efficiencies, etc.

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