Luminar acquisition brings high-performance laser capabilities in-house

Luminar, a company that builds vision-based lidar and machine perception technologies for autonomous vehicles, is acquiring high-performance laser manufacturer Freedom Photonics on Monday. The all-stock transaction involves Luminar transferring 3 million shares of its common stock, or about $42.3 million at today’s share price, to Freedom Photonics’s employees per a regulatory filing.

The buy is Luminar’s latest to vertically integrate core lidar components to bring more accurate, lower-cost products to market.

“The deal is signed and expected to close in the second quarter, and it really brings Freedom Photonics’s high-powered laser and their related photonic integrated circuit technologies to optimize the performance, as well as advance our cost roadmap, of our future sensors,” Jason Eichenholz, Luminar’s co-founder and chief technology officer, told TechCrunch.

Whether on city streets or highways, a major problem autonomous vehicle systems face is the ability to see and recognize objects at far distances. In order to get the point density and resolution needed to allow the AV system to determine whether it sees a tire or a person 300 meters ahead on the road, a high-powered laser pulse and high-quality beams are critical, two components that Freedom Photonics excel at, according to Eichenholz.

The deal, which follows a multi-year collaboration between the two companies, not only improves the quality of Luminar’s lidar, but it also allows Luminar to control more of the costs in the supply chain. This isn’t because lasers are especially hard to come by, but “lasers with the right performance parameters to unlock autonomy and have proactive safety that can be met in an automotive qualified environment is a lot harder,” said Eichenholz.

Lidar is one of the most expensive components of autonomous driving systems, which makes it difficult to commercialize and scale. Cost-cutting is vital and something Luminar is actively pursuing as it advances on its stated goal of achieving a sub-$100 bill of materials for the three key lidar hardware components that Eichenholz refers to as the “three legs of the stool” – the receiver, the ASIC or processing power, and the laser, which it now has from Freedom Photonics.

Luminar has already acquired the tech and teams for the other two legs of the stool. Its 2017 acquisition of Black Forest Engineers, a custom signal processing chipmaker, enabled Luminar to bring down the cost of receivers from tens of thousands of dollars to $3. And last year’s acquisition of Optogration and its receiver chips also unlocked performance and economics for the company, according to Eichenholz.

“Going all-in with Luminar is the perfect opportunity for Freedom Photonics, providing us an accelerated path to at-scale commercialization of our world-class laser chip technologies,” said Milan Mashanovitch, CEO at Freedom Photonics, in a statement. “In addition to helping extend Luminar’s automotive industry leadership, this provides us greater opportunity to simultaneously support and scale customers in other industry verticals.”

Freedom Photonics’s staff will also be acquired by Luminar, and its executive team will continue to lead the business upon close of the transaction.

Luminar’s share price is down about 2% in after-hours.

This article has been updated to reflect the financial terms of the deal.