Self-driving tech startup Optimus Ride raises $5.25M seed round

With sights set on developing fully autonomous driving technology, MIT spinoff startup Optimus Ride has raised $5.25 million in seed funding, led by NextView Ventures and FirstMark Capital. With the funding, Boston-based Optimus Ride hopes to provide something unique to the self-driving technology market, powered by a team with over 30 years of collective experience in robotics, on-demand transportation, electric vehicles and more.

“We have been working on new transportation systems that are based on new self-driving vehicle technologies, and we’ve been working on this for a few months already,” Optimus Ride co-founder, President, and Chief Scientist Sertac Karaman told me in an interview. “We have people on the team who have been working on autonomous vehicles for almost a decade.”

Karaman isn’t saying much about the specifics of what Optimus Ride is working on (spoiler alert: it isn’t, as the name might suggest, a giant sentient robot related to the leader of the Autobots), but he repeatedly points to the team’s talent as an indicator of what it can accomplish.

CEO Ryan Chin is an MIT PhD who co-invented the MIT CityCar, for instance, a lightweight all-electric vehicle designed specifically for urban use. CTO Albert Huang, another MIT PhD, worked at Google[x] as lead perception engineer, as well as at ReThink Robotics. CMO Jenny Larios Berlin has worked at Zipcar, where Karaman says she helped create the strategic vision for a car-sharing network that can function at scale. MIT media lab alum Ramiro Almeida is also a co-founder, having previously helped develop the first subway line in Quito, Ecuador.

Optimus Ride’s investor list is impressive too, including Lee Hower at NextView Ventures, and Amish Jani at FirstMark. MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito also participated in the seed round, as did Greycroft Partners, Morado Venture Partners, Haystack and Uj Ventures. Nvidia also participated in the seed round, and Karaman says the startup sees the GPU maker as very much as a strategic partner.

“We’ve come together to build self-driving vehicles, or systems that are based on level 4 autonomy, and to carry that to the next transportation system,” Karaman tells me.

Already, Optimus Ride has been doing some testing of early versions of its platform, including with a September test at Perkins School for the Blind. That, combined with the background of those involved, suggests that the startup will seek to provide technology solutions aimed more broadly at mobility in general, rather than simply as a supply-side platform partner for individual carmakers looking to outfit their vehicles with Level 4 self-driving smarts.

More details will be coming out in the next few months, Karaman says, and Optimus Ride will be innovating both with the vehicles themselves, and with their approach to the business model of transportation.

“We believe our team is unique, we have an excellent team working on these types of technologies that are very relevant to each other,” Karaman said. “It’s not just about building robots; people with different expertise are here. And even when it does come to building robots or self-driving vehicles, we’re very experienced.”

Most major carmakers appear to be anticipating a future in which car ownership is but one focus of their business, while shared car networks and on-demand autonomous transportation services will offer an alternative way to get around. We’ll have to wait and see exactly what Optimus Ride has to offer, but its focus on fleets suggests it’ll fit in with a vision of the future that makes autonomous cars a shared resource.