Self-driving car startup Wayve, co-founded by Kiwi Alex Kendall, raises US$200m

Wayve, a London-based startup led by Kiwi Alex Kendall, has raised US$200 million ($292m) in a Series B round to develop its unique take on self-driving vehicle technology.

Silicon Valley venture capital company Eclipse Ventures led the round, supported by angel investors including Sir Richard Branson. It follows a US$20m round in August 2019 and a further US$20m raised from Branson and others in November 2020 – a time when Kendall was running the company by working overnight from NZ.

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A clutch of Big Tech companies and carmakers are testing autonomous vehicle technologies.

But Wayve claims that expensive laser systems used by US rivals such as Google’s Waymo are unnecessary. Instead, the start-up uses powerful machine learning algorithms paired with ordinary cameras and a simple GPS to provide reliable data to navigate roads.

In a video interview with Sir Richard Branson’s daughter Holly Branson released three weeks ago (see below), the pair take a ride, as passengers, in a Jaguar i-Pace kitted out with and driven by Wayve’s technology.

Kendall says vehicles kitted out with Wayve’s technology have navigated lights, roundabouts, multi-lane roads and other obstacles in testing carried out in six UK cities – London, Cambridge, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Coventry.

But he also stresses that Wayve’s technology could be used for driverless driving in any city or any location because not reliant on pre-programmed routes, but machine learning.

Testing has been carried out with Renault’s two-seater Twizy and Jaguar’s elective SUV, the I-Pace.

But Kendall says Wayve’s system, which is still in a pre-commercial development phase, could be used with any modern EV.

Christchurch-raised Kendall – a Christ’s College old boy – went to Auckland University, where he graduated with an honours degree in Mechatronics Engineering after skipping the first year.

He then won a Woolf Fisher Scholar research fellowship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he completed a doctorate in deep learning, computer vision and robotics in 2017 – the same year he co-founded Wayve, where today he servers as CEO (and the Herald understands he is a substantial shareholder).

As a side-gig, he served as a scientific advisor to London-based AI startup Scape Technologies, a maker of “city-scale localisation with computer vision” 3D mapping technology that was acquired by Facebook for a reported US$40m in late 2019.

Matthew Scarborough, who became friends with Kendall at Auckland University’s engineering school, tells the Herald that Kendall stood out as “A near-genius – always the smartest guy in the class yet understated, humble and well-liked.”

Scarborough remembers how at varsity, before drones had entered the mainstream, Kendall built his own quadrocopter from scratch, and equipped it with twin cameras for 3D mapping.

“He’s the brightest engineer, but he’s also a regular Kiwi guy and very self-effacing,” Scarborough says. “If you met him in a pub, you’d never guess he’s an international leader in his field,” Scarborough says.

And although Wayve is London-based with a staff of around 100 drawn from all around the world, the company has a strong Kiwi identity thanks to three of its top six staff being Kiwis. The company’s VP of technology, Jeff Hawke, also graduated from Auckland University’s School of Engineering.

Wayve’s VP of people and culture Carolin Fleissner is also an Auckland grad.

The pair are still friends says Scarborough, who also moved to London, albeit in his case to pursue a career in investment banking (he is a participant, on a small scale, in the latest raise. He is currently back in NZ to get married, and talked to the Herald from MIQ).

In comments emailed to the Herald, Kendall said the US$200m would go toward version 2 of his company’s Autonomous Vehicle platform.

“We were the first team to develop the scientific breakthroughs in deep learning to build autonomous driving technology that can easily scale to new markets using a data-learned approach. Today, we have all of the pieces in place to take what we have pioneered and drive AV2.0 forward.

“We have brought together world-class strategic partners in transportation, grocery delivery and compute, along with the best capital resources to scale our core autonomy platform, trial products with our commercial fleet partners, and build the infrastructure to scale AV2.0 globally.”

Wayve’s technology could leapfrog US giants such as Google’s Waymo and Uber, Kendall told The Telegraph in November 2020.

“The incumbents started off the back of DARPA [the US defence agency] challenges in the mid 2000s. I think those challenges set the industry back about 10 years,” he said.

The DARPA challenges, hosted in the Nevada desert, focused on “rules and maps” programming for driverless cars – essentially drawing invisible lines across detailed maps – rather than machine learning. While good for basic driving, the machines are relatively dumb.

Wayve uses AI that learns to drive like a human, analysing the behaviours of real drivers, Kendall says.

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