Australian lidar maker Baraja is collecting 31MB to shed light on the future of autonomy
Lidar companies around the world are going on SPAC, but Baraja is in no rush to go public. The Australian lidar maker has collected a round of 31MB to continue the use and development of its “unique and ingenious” imaging system that involves the usual VC suspects.
Baraja’s Lidar uses what the company calls SpectrumScan and lets the physics do the hard work of directing the light. When the laser is passed through a prism, different wavelengths of light go in different directions – and when it comes back it takes the same path. It’s actually a little more involved, but if you’re curious, check out my article from CES last year for a more detailed description of it.
The company has not lied since then, although lidar’s most obvious application – autonomous vehicles – hasn’t exactly started in the meantime. Federico Collarte, co-founder and CEO of the lidar industry, told me in 2020, “If you don’t differentiate, you die.” And Baraja has done this not only with its technology, but also with its approach to the market.
It turns out that lidar is useful in many industries, but most lidar units contain highly complex mechanical elements that can be affected by heat, cold and other environmental factors. Not so much Baraja, who only has one moving part (and that very slowly and steadily, somewhere in the optics) and can withstand intense conditions for a long time.
Collarte stated that one of their big clients for the past two years has been mining, and you can imagine why. Creating accurate 3D images of mines is a task that is incredibly difficult for humans or ordinary cameras, but is practically designed specifically for lidar. That is, if the lidar can withstand the heat, cold and the forces of mining.
“In mining, reliability and robustness are key,” said Collarte. “We have had units in mines in the Australian desert for two years. We had one back for RMA – you saw our units painted like an electric blue – the paint was totally eroded. It was bare metal, but the thing still worked. “
Since the more sensitive parts, the laser and the receiver, are hidden deep in the machine body and can be connected to the “stupid” lens and prismatic elements of the head via fiberglass, the machine could withstand years of scorching sand. Not a claim that many lidar manufacturers can make!
The partnership with Hitachi Construction Machinery was so successful that the company decided to invest.
This strategic investment is part of Collarte’s plan to diversify financial assistance. “We’re trying to get the kind of investors who have a very long span of time – institutional investors,” he said.
Although venture capital is still part of it, he cited new investor HESTA, something of a pension fund, as an example of the kind of financier he was looking for in addition to VCs. Previous investors Blackbird Ventures (who led) and Main Sequence Ventures, as well as some new VCs, returned for this round. The $ 40 million Australian stands at $ 31 million – slightly less than his A Round A of $ 32 million in 2018, but it doesn’t feel like a downside round.
Collarte emphasized the importance of acting as a company and not just as an extended R&D process.
“If you’re just working on technology, that’s fine, but you won’t have sales and customers today,” he said. “We have income and real applications – we train these muscles. We’re good at customer support, installation, warranty, and failure modes – it’s an entire area of business that needs to be pursued beyond just research and development. “
In addition to mining, shipping is another area in which lidar can be subjected to punitive conditions. A major Australian port used Baraja units as part of its quest for autonomy.
However, R&D remains an important part of the company’s funding plans. The biggest changes in the short term are to offer an integrated “one-box” system that some vehicle manufacturers and suppliers may find easier to work with. In the long term, the basic architecture of the system will also evolve.
“We have a background in telecommunications and they have moved on from the mass optics [meaning lenses, prisms, and fiber optic bundles] in photonics and integrated circuits. We always thought so, ”said CTO and co-founder Cibby Pulikkaseril. “My roadmap is to bring these onto chips so that they don’t look different from other chips in the vehicle.”
Collarte pointed out that while miniaturization is difficult for everyone, it is particularly difficult for the scanning mechanism in lidar, as it often has to be a certain size and cover a certain arc in order to properly steer the laser. He proudly said that they are already well on their way to finding a solution that is unique to their SpectrumScan method.
The next year, they claimed, will be an important year for Tier 1 suppliers and others in search of Level 4 autonomy. Perhaps that is why so many lidar companies decided to go public via SPAC in the last year. But that’s not the plan for Baraja, at least for now.
“It’s something we keep in mind,” said Collarte. “But we are in no hurry.”
In addition to the aforementioned VCs and Hitachi Construction Machinery, the following investors have joined the round: Regal Funds Management, Perennial Value Management and InterValley Ventures.