Luminar founder Austin Russell has become one of the youngest self-made billionaires after his lidar company debuted on public markets on Thursday. Russell, 25, was just 17 when he founded Luminar in 2012. Shares of Luminar rose above $30 a share on Friday, a massive 43 percent gain for the day on top of big gains on Thursday.
Luminar has emerged as one of the leading companies in the fast-growing lidar industry. Carmakers are expected to begin offering lidar as an advanced option for their vehicles in the next few years to enable better driver-assistance technology. Right now, lidar companies are vying to win contracts to supply these sensors.
Luminar had a major win in May when it signed a deal with Volvo to supply lidar sensors for vehicles starting in 2022. It was one of the first such deals in the industry.
More recently, Luminar struck a deal to supply lidar sensors to Mobileye, the Intel subsidiary that supplies many of the camera-based driver assistance systems in today’s cars. Luminar is supplying sensors for Mobileye’s self-driving prototypes, not production vehicles, so it wasn’t a huge deal on its own. But if Mobileye winds up building its next-generation technology around Luminar’s lidar—far from a sure thing—it could lead to a lot of Luminar lidar sales in the future.
While industry leader Velodyne has traditionally made 360-degree spinning units designed to sit on a vehicle roof, Luminar’s sensors are fixed in place and cover a 120 degree horizontal field of view in front of a vehicle.
Long range is viewed as essential for advanced self-driving systems, and Luminar claims its lidar has an industry-leading range of 250 meters. One reason for this is that its lasers operate at an unusual frequency. Most lidar sensors operate at around 900nm—largely because silicon-based lasers and sensors work well around this frequency. However, 900nm lasers are subject to strict power limits because they can damage the human retina.
In contrast, Luminar operates at 1,550nm. The fluid in the human eye is opaque to light at this wavelength, greatly reducing eye safety concerns. As a result, Luminar can pump a lot more power into its lasers and hence achieve longer range. A major downside to 1,550nm lasers, however, is that it requires the use of more exotic semiconductors like indium-gallium arsenide that tend to be more expensive. But Luminar says it has figured out how to sell its sensors for less than $1,000 in volume.
The big question facing Luminar is whether it can deliver on that goal. When Luminar released financial results ahead of this week’s merger, it disclosed that it expected to sell 0.1 thousand—that is, around 100—lidar sensors in the 2020 calendar year. To justify its multi-billion dollar valuation, the company is going to have to figure out how to produce tens of thousands of units while hitting that less-than-$1,000 price target.
SPACs are having a moment in the EV and lidar sectors
Luminar went public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC)—a financial vehicle that helps startups bypass some of the complexity and paperwork of a traditional IPO. Instead of offering its shares directly to the public, Luminar merged with a company called Gores Metropoulos that had previously been created for the purpose of finding a startup to take public.
This year has seen a boom in SPAC-based deals. Luminar rival Velodyne went public via a SPAC in September. The company’s share price has seen only modest gains since the deal was announced. Another lidar maker, Innoviz, is reportedly considering a SPAC merger.
A little-known electric vehicle maker, Lordstown Motors, went public via a SPAC in October and got an enthusiastic reception from investors. So did another electric vehicle maker, Fisker. Yet another EV company, Canoo, announced a SPAC deal in August.
Skeptics worry that this alternate process lets companies opt out of due-diligence steps that help protect retail investors from fraud.
Those worries were underscored when aspiring hydrogen truckmaker Nikola went public via a SPAC merger in June. A few months later, the public learned that the company’s first product, a semi truck called the Nikola One, had never been functional, despite founder Trevor Milton’s claims to the contrary. Milton was forced to resign, and Nikola’s value is far below the peak it hit shortly after the company went public. Anyone who bought Nikola stock in the first few days of trading has lost most of their money.