“This is our life’s work”: Sydney startup Baraja raises $40 million to build next-gen LiDAR tech for self-driving cars

Baraja co-founders Cibby Pulikkaseril and Federico Collarte. Source: supplied.

Sydney startup Baraja has secured $40 million in fresh funding to develop the second and third generation of its LiDAR tech for autonomous vehicles.

Founded in 2016 by Federico Collarte and Cibby Pulikkaseril, Baraja has developed its flagship Spectrum-Scan LiDAR technology, using wavelength properties of light to better detect range and to focus in a similar way to the human eye, depending on the conditions.

It’s also designed to be more resistant to heat, shocks and vibration, and to be more affordable and reliable than other LiDAR systems.

The funding round was led by Blackbird Ventures and included strategic investment from Hitachi Construction Machinery, which has also been a client for two years, helping validate the tech.

It follows Baraja’s $45 million Series A raise back in January 2019.

Since then, the team has been focused on delivering the product for real-world applications in the industrial and mining industries in Australia, the co-founders tell SmartCompany.

This was the “perfect test bed”, Collarte says.

Baraja’s competitors are testing their products on commercial vehicles in the US, and “cannot really operate even if it’s raining”, Collarte claims.

The Aussie startup has had machinery operating in the Australian desert — surviving in the harshest of conditions — for two years.

Now, the focus is on miniaturising the LiDAR tech and making it more affordable in order to further open up the use case, including to more commercial, mass-produced vehicles, while improving safety for the users.

It will also mean the product can be fully embedded into the body of the car, making for more pleasing aesthetics.

The rich data sets will “enable car makers to grow the intelligence of the vehicle”, Pulikkaseril explains.

“The capabilities are going to grow and grow.”

While the co-founders confirm Baraja is indeed generating revenue, they decline to reveal any more details.

The “big break of revenue” is expected to come with the next phase of the tech rollout, Collarte hints.

However, they do say the team is growing.

Before this funding round closed, the startup had a headcount of about 90 people. That number has already increased to 125, and is expected to grow to between 150 and 160 by June this year.

It includes local engineering talent joining the team in Sydney, and boosting the team in the US, too.

While a lot of the funding is pegged for R&D development, it’s these teams that will truly propel the ‘next gen’ tech development.

“Everything hinges on people,” Collarte says.

“We’re hiring the best talent in the world.”

Not ‘if’, but ‘when’

While some startups plan ahead by months, or even just weeks, the sector Baraja is working in means it has to take something of a longer-term view.

These co-founders are looking five years ahead, and even further beyond. That’s when Collarte expects to see an inflection point in terms of autonomous vehicle adoption, and when we might start seeing meaningful market penetration — that is, autonomous vehicles using Baraja’s technology driving around the streets.

By 2030, it will be something we don’t think twice about.

“This is our life’s work, bringing this tech to the market,” Pulikkaseril explains.

He believes their particular product is the key to bringing affordable, highly functional LiDAR to the market, so it can be deployed as widely as possible.

But it’s a complex solution to a complex problem, and they’re not operating in a vacuum. The LiDAR is just a tiny component of the “whole solution of mobility”, Collarte adds.

“It has to interact in an ecosystem that includes the most complex agents in the world — humans,” he adds.

The founders say they almost reverse-engineered the solution. They predicted that self-driving cars would need spectrum-scanning capabilities in order to operate safely and effectively, and then figured out the steps they would have to take to get that tech to where it needed to be.

“Plenty of people told us it wasn’t going to work,” Pulikkaseril says.

“The contributions of an incredibly technical team have proved them all wrong.”

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