Luminar nabs former Uber executive to lead LiDAR startup’s business development

Luminar, the buzzy LiDAR startup founded by Austin Russell, has added another high-profile executive to its ranks. This time, Luminar has hired Uber executive Brent Schwarz as its head of business development.

Schwarz, who has been at Luminar for about two months now, comes from Uber by way of self-driving truck startup Otto, which acquired his own LiDAR startup.

Schwarz is a veteran in the LiDAR sensor industry. He was vice president of sales and marketing at Velodyne from 2009 to 2012 and helped turn it into a startup that was hand-building LiDAR units into a commercial enterprise. Velodyne has become a major supplier of LiDAR sensors to companies testing autonomous vehicles. Before Velodyne, Schwarz worked at Intel and Magellan Navigation.

Schwarz would later launch his own company, Tyto LiDAR, which was purchased by self-driving truck company Otto. Uber acquired Otto in 2016. Schwarz stayed on with Uber after the acquisition, and most recently led the effort to build Uber Freight’s financial systems.

“This is a rocket ship I had to be a part of,” Schwarz explaining his reasons for joining Luminar.

LiDAR, or light detection and ranging radar, measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world around the car. LiDAR is considered by many automakers and tech companies an essential piece of technology to safely roll out self-driving cars.

Luminar aims to take LiDAR to the next level, in both technical capabilities and scale. After years of operating in stealth, Luminar made its public debut in the autonomous vehicle startup scene in April 2017.

Luminar built its LiDAR from scratch, a lengthy process that resulted in a simpler design and better performance. It made a leap forward in April 2018 with the introduction of a new LiDAR unit that performs better, is cheaper and is able to be assembled in minutes rather than hours. Luminar’s acquisition of Black Forest Engineering was a big part of its plan to improve the quality along with efficiency. So was the addition of its 136,000-square-foot manufacturing center in Orlando, Florida.

“This is the fundamental shift, when we went from having optics PhDs hand assemble these systems to having proper production to where we can actually scale up and take on new customers beyond the four we’ve been working with the past year,” Russell told TechCrunch, referring to partners that use Luminar sensors in their AV test and development fleets.

The company has disclosed Volvo and Toyota Research Institute as customers. Volvo invested in Luminar earlier this year and became a commercial customer of its new perception development platform.

“We’ve had some massive progress on the business development front, both with bringing Brent on board and scaling up a number of customers,” Russell told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “We’re now able to really address the immediate needs of these various autonomous test and development programs that are now starting translate into volume production, real-world systems for consumers.”

In the past four months, Luminar has quadrupled the number test and development customers. The company now has contracts with 16 OEMs (a combination of automaker, trucking, tech and ride-sharing type companies) and is in negotiations with another 16 or so, Russell said.

Bringing in testing and development customers is a good first step. But locking them in as commercial customers, meaning they’re integrating the sensor into volume production products, is the ultimate target. Schwarz will be a big part of that effort.

Right now, Schwarz says he is focused on hiring to create the teams that will manage the pipeline of new customers as well as help bring those using Luminar sensors for testing and development into series production.

In June, the company hired Fitbit executive Bill Zerella as its chief financial officer and Tami Rosen as chief people officer. Rosen was at Goldman Sachs for 16 years, a senior director of human resources at Apple and most recently vice president of people at Quora.

Earlier this year, Luminar released a new “perception development platform” for which Volvo is the first customer. Luminar’s perception development platform detects and labels what its LiDAR hardware sees and then delivers that data to the car’s self-driving system. The platform is not making decisions. It’s just meant to provide more robust data to help the car’s “brain” make the right ones.