A few bright spots remain in the autonomous vehicle sector, even amid macroeconomic headwinds that have nearly shut off the flow of venture capital and driven further consolidation.
Helm.ai, a startup that develops software for advanced driver assistance systems, autonomous driving and robotics, is one of them.
The Menlo Park, California-based startup recently raised $31 million in a Series C round led by Freeman Group, just a year after it raised $26 million in venture funding. This latest round, which included ACVC Partners, Amplo and strategic investors Honda Motor Co., Goodyear Ventures and Sungwoo Hitech, pushed Helm.ai’s valuation to $431 million.
Brandon Freeman, founder of the Freeman Group, will join Helm.ai’s board of directors as part of this funding. The company has raised $78 million to date.
Like so many other autonomous vehicle startups, Helm.ai was launched to advance the technology with a new approach. Instead of the sensors or computers, Tudor Achim and Vlad Voroninski, co-founders of Helm.ai, focused on the software.
Helm.ai developed software that can understand sensor data as well as a human – a goal similar to others in the field. The approach is the remarkable part. Autonomous vehicle developers often rely on a combination of simulation and road testing, along with masses of data sets annotated by humans, to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.
Helm.ai says it has developed software that can skip those steps, speeding up the timeline and reducing costs; that lower cost also makes it particularly useful for advanced driver assistance systems. The six-year-old startup is using an unsupervised learning approach to develop software that can train neural networks without the need for large-scale fleet data, simulation or annotation. The software is also agnostic to all computers and sensors used in the vehicle, allowing Helm.ai to pitch to a diverse group of customers.
Helm.ai sells its software to several automotive OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers to help them “achieve software differentiation with high-performance ADAS and L4 solutions,” Voroninski said.
“Strategically, we have known for several years that our go-to-market strategy will focus on high-end ADAS; our strategy has not changed at all due to the recent events,” he said, referring to consolidation in the AV industry. “I have actually been predicting for several years that the vast majority of autonomous driving companies will fail the market due to outdated technology approaches and substandard business models. So it’s no surprise to me anyway. The autonomous driving market has generally not been efficient in recent years due to all the misplaced hype.”
Helm.ai has attracted a number of customers, though Voroninski said he couldn’t name the other customers due to nondisclosure agreements. Helm.ai has previously announced that Honda is a customer. The mathematician and former chief scientist at cybersecurity machine learning startup Sift Security did say he has spent the past two years focusing on commercializing the technology and securing partnerships.
The recent funding will be used to add more employees to the 50-person workforce, R&D and building those commercial partnerships, he said.