A startup spearheaded by serial entrepreneur Stan Boland plans to build a world-leading UK software powerhouse for autonomous vehicles – a hothouse of AI that manufacturers can harness to validate the safety of driverless cars.
Boland (pictured), who has a string of Cambridge technology successes under his belt, is co-founder and CEO of Five.ai which recently raised $2.7 million in a round led by Hermann Hauser’s Amadeus Capital Partners.
Three VCs weighed into the round and the company will be looking for some $35m in a further two rounds to get definitive validation technology into the marketplace by 2019 and subsequently push on with commercialisation. It expects its investor profile to become increasingly international.
Co-founder Ben Peters, who heads up marketing for Five.ai and worked with Boland at Neul in Cambridge before it was bought by Huawei, said brainpower in the golden triangle of Cambridge, London and Oxford was helping the UK lead the way in embedded software for autonomous vehicles.
“We intend to leverage the pull of their talented professors and PhDs and build a UK powerhouse for machine learning and embedded software that will be required to validate and power driverless cars,” he said.
The company currently has Cambridge offices at Barclays’ new Eagle Labs incubator and in Bristol and feels no need to make a call on an HQ location just yet. The business is currently just the six founders but two job offers are in the process of converting and Peters said headcount will ramp steadily after that.
“The current funding gives us 18 months; we will probably grow by 10 or 12 people over the next year. We will be looking for around $10-$15m in about a year’s time to see us through to 2019 and then a further $20m to really push on commercially, by which time we should be up to 60+ headcount.
“It is seriously exciting time for the business and we are lucky to have such cool offices in Cambridge. As we progress we can give talented young AI professionals who join the business an equity stake and a platform to showcase their skills.”
Peters said the technology for autonomous vehicles had moved on substantially since Google, for example, first paraded its potential in the space in 2011.
Five.ai is purely a software play. It will harness best-of-breed machine learning, embedded software and AI to ensure that makers of driverless cars can thoroughly validate their safety and efficiency before they hit the highway.
The theory is that chipmakers can buy into the software capability and that manufacturers can incorporate the proven software and chip technology into their prototypes.
Boland believes Five.ai has the edge by utilising more sophisticated machine-learning that will help a vehicle understand its surroundings without the need to constantly compare its data against ultra-precise, three-dimensional maps created by radar systems. He says a Five.ai-powered vehicle would need three to four times as many computers as Google’s driverless car. That is intended as a reassurance that safety and efficiency are paramount to the autonomous vehicle proposition and that Five.ai will not cut corners to appease manufacturers as they scramble for pole position in a red hot marketplace.
The Five.ai team is perfecting a computer-vision system and will soon be in a position to engage with vehicle manufacturers and transport companies.
Boland has an outstanding track record. He was brought into Hermann Hauser’s Acorn Computers to restore equilibrium and lay the foundations for the spin-out of ARM in 1990.
He went on to head up chip designer Element14 (acquired by Broadcom for $600 million). He then founded Icera, which made wireless modems for cell phones and sold that to Nvidia for $367m.
He also turned round wireless broadband startup Neul and moulded it into such an attractive proposition that Chinese ICT giant, Huawei acquired it and is now up to 80 people at Cambridge Science Park as a re-engineered and powerful player in the IoT marketplace.