Lidar startup Luminar to go public via $3.4 billion SPAC merger

Luminar, the lidar startup that burst onto the autonomous vehicle scene in April 2017 after operating for years in secrecy, is merging with special purpose acquisition company Gores Metropoulos Inc., with a post-deal market valuation of $3.4 billion.

Gores Metropoulos, which is listed on the Nasdaq exchange, is a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, sponsored by an affiliate of The Gores Group, the global investment firm founded in the late 1980s by Alec Gores.

The SPAC merger comes just three months after Luminar hit a critical milestone and announced that Volvo would start producing vehicles in 2022 equipped with its lidar and a perception stack. The Luminar technology will be used to deploy an automated driving system for highways.

Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell told TechCrunch that they wanted to go public at some point. But the momentum from the Volvo deal along with interest within public markets led the company to take the SPAC route, Russell said.

Luminar is the latest startup — and second lidar company — to turn to SPACs this summer in lieu of a traditional IPO process. In June, Velodyne Lidar struck a deal to merge with special purpose acquisition company Graf Industrial Corp., with a market value of $1.8 billion. Four electric vehicle startups have also skipped the traditional IPO path in recent months, opting instead to go public through a merger agreement with a SPAC, which are also known as blank check companies. Canoo, Fisker Inc., Lordstown Motors and Nikola Corp. have gone public via a SPAC merger this spring and summer.

Luminar said it was able to raise $170 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, by institutional investors, including Alec Gores, Van Tuyl Companies, Peter Thiel, Volvo Cars Tech Fund, Crescent Cove, Moore Strategic Ventures, GoPro founder Nick Woodman and VectoIQ, with the majority of the major existing investors participating. The transaction will also include a balance of about $400 million cash that has been held by Gores Metropoulos.

Once the transaction closes, Luminar will maintain its name and will be listed on Nasdaq under the ticker symbol LAZR. The deal is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2020. Russell will continue to serve as CEO and Tom Fennimore will continue to serve as CFO. Alec Gores will join the Luminar board of directors upon closing of the transaction.

“This milestone is pivotal not just for us, but also for the larger automotive industry,” said Russell said in a statement. “Eight years ago, we took on a problem to which most thought there would be no technically or commercially viable solution. We worked relentlessly to build the tech from the ground up to solve it and partnered directly with the leading global automakers to show the world what’s possible. Today, we are making our next industry leap through our new long-term partnership with Gores Metropoulos, a team that has deep experience in technology and automotive and shares our vision of a safe autonomous future powered by Luminar.”

Luminar was founded by Russell in 2012, but it operated in secret for years until coming out of stealth in spring 2017 with backing from Thiel and others. Russell, who is now 25 years old, worked on the Luminar technology as a Thiel fellow, which gives young people $100,000 over two years to drop out of college and pursue their ideas.

Luminar raised $250 million prior to the SPAC announcement. The company now has 350 employees and operations in Silicon Valley as well as a factory in Orlando. Luminar said it plans to open an office in Detroit as well.

Lidar, light detection and ranging radar, measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world around the car. The sensor is widely considered critical to the commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles. Automakers have also begun to view lidar as an important sensor to be used to beef up the capabilities and safety of its advanced driver assistance systems in the new cars trucks and SUVs available to consumers.

Volvo is one of those automakers. Luminar’s Iris lidar sensors — which TechCrunch  has described as about the size of really thick sandwich and one-third smaller than its previous iterations — will be integrated in the roof of Volvo’s production vehicles, beginning in 2022.

Luminar also announced Monday that it has hired 16 people who worked on Samsung’s now dissolved DRVLINE team. Samsung once described the DRVLINE platform as an “open, modular, and scalable hardware and software-based platform” for the autonomous driving market. Earlier this year, TechCrunch reported that Samsung shuttered the DRVLINE/Smart Machines team.

Those hires are directly tied to Luminar’s strategy to capitalize on what Russell believes is the nearer term application of lidar in production vehicles, not robotaxis. Luminar is still working with companies seeking to commercialize robotaxis, but he believes it’s a longer-term play.

“I think that there are huge, long-term promises associated with robotaxis, but I really see that market taking off in the 2030s as opposed to the 2020s,” Russell said. Lidar used to support active driver safety system will be provides the kind of volume and economies of scale that are going to be driving this business, he added.