Omer Keilaf: We meet the man behind the future of autonomous driving
In recent years, there has been an enormous interest and scrutiny on the autonomous vehicle and the onboard technologies needed to increase their appeal to the masses. Almost every mainstream car manufacturer is now throwing their proverbial hat into the ring. Audi, BMW, Ranger Rover all have promised to have their version out in next five to 10 years.
The reliance of autonomous vehicles on advanced technologies further has increased the need for tech firms to take up the challenge. This partnership is paying off and new technologies can already be seen integrated with almost every new vehicle rolling out of the production line.
However there is more, the tech firms need to be able to provide a unique perspective to enter the autonomy race, and Innoviz technology is such firm. I first came across Innoviz when I did a piece about their new tech and how their partnership with BMW, is assisting the German brand to achieve their deadline.
I am glad I wrote that piece, it provided an opportunity for me to understand and get to know one of the many talented men and women, whom have banded together to make sure Innoviz technology is a successful brand and is a major player in our race to autonomy. His name is Omer Keilaf, and he is the CEO of Innoviz Technologies.
First of all, my heartfelt thanks, for taking time and agreeing to do this interview, especially during the time of the year which was a busy year for you and Innoviz Technology.
1. Can you tell us some of your qualities that you attribute to your family?
I grew up in a house where both my parents were self-employed. When I was young, my older sister got into a bad accident which shook the house dramatically. As a young kid in a house where your family is going through hard times, I decided to take more responsibility over myself and started to work when I was 12 years old. I enjoyed being able take care of myself which took some of the burden off my family. It also helped to shape my career by giving me an understanding of how to manage multiple tasks and I saw the importance of making decisions in order to make things happen.
2. I’d like to talk a little about your college and university years. What was the dream? What events shaped the path that you took?
In Israel it’s customary that people go to the army at age of 18, serve for three years and then go to University. In some rare cases, students that leave high school with high grades are sent to do their first degree before their army service. That’s what I did. Mostly it means that you are surrounded by people that are much older than you and, on top of that, you want to be successful in your studies so when you finish the degree, you will be selected by the best unit in the army.
I knew it would be a major milestone that would define where I’d be going to spend seven years of my life, and I wanted to be in the best unit possible. I worked very hard on my studies and also worked in different roles in startups. On my last year of studies, I even became a lecturer in two courses at the University. I did all that I could do to show that I would be a good fit for the unit I wanted to join. The plan worked. :-)
3. What companies did you like to follow as you were growing up and through your study years?
Growing up, I always admired the world’s biggest technology companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Motorola, and so on. I was also inspired by Israeli companies that made a big splash on the global stage -- companies like Amdocs, Cimatron, Magic Software Enterprises and Mirabilis, which developed the ICQ instant messaging program and was purchased by America Online for over $400 million.
4. Any extra-curricular activities? And most importantly how did these activities shape who you are and what you do?
Not extra-curricular, but my time in the Israeli defence force had a large influence on me. I served for seven years. In that unit, I was part of the development of many very innovative technologies. In all those projects, they were always on a very short schedule, integrating many innovations done by hundreds of people to deliver a very reliable product. When you are involved in such a fast paced work environment, you get “addicted” to being part of such an amazing team that is working on something meaningful. This drove me to always look to be part of start-ups that are active in creating meaningful technologies that bring value to the world.
5. Why autonomy? What fascinated you to join the autonomous revolution?
The autonomous driving revolution is exactly that -- a revolution. It will completely change life as we know it today. Forget about the novelty of it and the convenience it will provide; autonomous vehicles will deliver lots of really big and important benefits to mankind, starting with the millions of lives it will save and the countless injuries it will prevent. It will also reduce fuel consumption, improve traffic and lessen emissions -- in effect helping to save the planet!
Of course, there are also a number of very challenging hurdles to overcome, and I was drawn by this combination of a big challenge with a major societal impact. A lot of the smartest and most interesting people I knew were joining the autonomous revolution, and I wanted in on the action as well.
6. Let's talk a little bit about the people that formed the core of Innoviz? How did you meet them? What attracted you to work with each other?
Innoviz was founded by several former members of the elite technological unit of the Israeli Defense Forces with renowned expertise in the fields of electro-optics, computer vision, MEMS design and signal processing. Many of us actually served in the unit at the same time, and after going our separate ways and establishing our careers, we came back together with the common goal of addressing this very big and important challenge of enabling the mass commercialisation of autonomous vehicles. Our shared experience in the military taught us the value of working as a team to solve complex, difficult challenges. In the private sector, we all served in various technical, product and management roles before coming together to work on Innoviz, and it was these diverse experiences, combined with a common shared vision, that has led to our success to date.
7. What is the culture of the company like?
Innoviz has an exciting culture because things move so fast here. Everyone is encouraged to continually push the boundaries of innovation and seek new ways to solve old problems. At the same time, there’s a never-quit mentality in that we all believe no challenge is so big it can’t be overcome. There’s a sense that we are on the cutting edge of technology and that we are playing a crucial role in something that stands to not only transform the entire transportation industry but life as we know it for millions if not billions of people. I think I speak for everyone here when I say that we wake up every day excited to get to work.
8. In your own words, tell me about your product? What sets it apart from others?
We’ve built the first LiDAR that meets ALL of the automotive industry’s requirements for 3D vision sensing, which was an incredibly difficult technical challenge. The major challenge was to develop a LiDAR that offers high performance at 250 meters or longer, but at a cost that enables the mainstream adoption of autonomous vehicles, and in a size small enough to fit seamlessly into the car’s design, without using up too much power, in a way that is both safe and reliable -- no other developer has been able to meet all of these requirements at once.
9. You are working very closely with BMW, how does it feel to be part of their journey?
It feels great, of course! BMW is one of leading pioneers in the entire automotive industry when it comes to autonomous driving and innovation in general, and it rightfully gets a lot of credit for being ahead of the curve in adopting new technologies. The fact that BMW chose us to provide the LiDAR and Computer Vision for series production of its autonomous vehicles is a great validation of all the work we have done and just how advanced our technology is over any other LiDAR developer. It’s rewarding to have that third-party validation telling us that we are indeed on the right track and that our solution sets the standard for the entire industry.
10. Autonomous Technology is a very hot topic, what’s so different about what Innoviz is doing that sets you apart from other competitors?
The previous approaches to LiDAR came at the problem all wrong, so we had to completely rethink the whole system. Our ground-breaking technology uses proprietary System, MEMS and Detector design to deliver a new level of performance and capabilities, all at a cost and in a size that is conducive to the mass-market adoption of autonomous vehicles. The fact that we have been able to not only create but actually manufacture and now mass produce a LiDAR that delivers on all of the automotive industry’s needs for price, performance, size, safety and reliability -- in just a little over two years since we were first founded -- is what truly sets us apart from the competition.
11. What does the future hold for you and the company?
Great question. Not only are we developing the best LiDAR to support the industry’s move into series production of autonomous vehicles, but we are also working on developing the Computer Vision software and fully autonomous driving stack that goes with it. We are also exploring other markets that can use high-performance LiDAR, such as industrial automation, unmanned aerial vehicles, security and surveillance, logistics and more.
12. What would be the two or three things that would characterise Innoviz Technologies?
First and foremost, I’d have to say that we are characterised by innovation and the mission to break new ground. Another defining characteristic is that of growth; we were founded on a grand vision and we have been in a hyper-growth mode ever since. And lastly, I’d add that we are never completely satisfied or complacent, which I guess is what leads to the first two!
13. We talked about some of your earlier successes. What were some of the early things that didn't go well? And what did you learn from them?
After seven years in the army service, I decided to leave to experience other work cultures. I was looking to join strong teams that were at the early stages of their start-up. I wanted to learn about start-ups so I could later have my own. The first startup I joined was Anobit, a very successful startup that was later sold to Apple for several hundreds of millions of dollars. The lesson I learned from that experience was the importance of bringing the right people for the right job and setting a high bar for building a team.
Another takeaway from Anobit was that the company culture was not aligned with the level of people that were part of the team, which made several smart people want to leave. This is why I try my best at Innoviz to make sure that HR is not only dealing with the recruitment of people but actually also very focused on the people already in the organisation.
14. How are your relationships with the other co-founders of the company? Do you all share the same vision?
Our relationships are great. It’s always good to have a solid history with your co-founders, and because we all formed close bonds by serving together in the military and remaining friends afterwards, we’re able to trust each other and rely on one another.
We have very open lines of communication, and we feel free to disagree with one another or challenge one another when necessary, knowing that it all comes from a place of respect. We all have very complementary skills too, so that as a group we form a complete, cohesive unit, with each one offering expertise in certain areas, whether R&D, technical proficiency, operational expertise and vast business experience.
15. That wraps up the number of topics I wanted to cover today. Any parting comments?
Thanks for asking such great questions, and for doing all you do to shed light on the people and companies doing interesting work in the automotive industry.
So there we have it, I aimed to provide an eagle eye insight to Autonomous revolution looking through the eyes of the people whom not only are living the dream but making that dream to become a reality for rest of us.