What it takes to be Startup of the Year: Top tech, great coffee

Boston-based NODAR was named Startup of the Year at Best of Sensors 2023 on June 21 at Sensors Converge 2023 held in Santa Clara, Calif. 

Judges picked NODAR over four other finalists: FireBot Suppression, Calumino, Zero Point Motion and GyroPalm.  NODAR was honored for development of technology for autonomous vehicles that performs object detection by instantaneously measuring the distance to millions of points in a scene by using two off-the-shelf, auto grade cameras.

NODAR’s Advanced Stereo Vision leverages advances in compute, CMOS technology and proprietary computer vision algorithms to produce high-resolution 3D point clouds in real time with accurate depth measurements from as far away as 1,000 meters.

But the tech itself wasn’t all. As Sensors Converge Event Director Charlene Soucy noted during the Best of Sensors Awards ceremony: “They’ve achieved significant milestones in the industry, including: xTechSearch finalist, won a SBIR Phase II $1.7 million award to develop military vision system for harsh environments, launched an SDK for ADAS/AV and vertical markets like commercial vehicles, agricultural equipment, trains and drones, and were chosen by Inalfa Roof Systems as an integration partner for a sensor-integrated next-generation automobile roof. They are currently engaged in several pilots with automotive tier-1s and OEMS.”

After the ceremony, Fierce Electronics caught up with NODAR CEO Leaf Jiang to chat about the company’s work, including what it takes to be a successful startup. (Spoiler Alert: Great coffee is  one necessary part.)

FE: Congratulations on winning Startup of the Year at Best of Sensors 2023. The award mentioned your company’s any-object-detection using off-the-shelf auto grade cameras along with other features such as Stereo Vision CMOS and more. Why does this tech matter in cars?

Jiang: A car that allows the driver to be mind-off or L3 (not just hands off or L2) requires sensors that can detect any hazardous objects on the road reliably. Currently, L3 sensor constellations contain one or more lidars to achieve mind-off driving. Since NODAR provides ultra-dense 3D pointclouds that are arguably superior to lidar using just low-cost cameras, we can make these systems safer and deploy to all car segments, as opposed to just the luxury car segment.

FE: How many engineers work at NODAR and what is it like to work there? 

Jiang: NODAR raised its Series A round from NEA last year and has a head count of 20 people. Our headquarters are in Boston, MA and we have staff in Detroit, Silicon Valley, Germany, and Japan. For the staff at HQ, we have a hybrid work environment, where employees typically are in the office at least 3 days a week. As we are a software company, much of the work can be done remotely, but we also have hardware reference designs, demonstration systems, and hardware development kits that require in-person work in the laboratory. Since we only employ senior-level engineers, they have a lot of independence at work and collaborate to achieve our goal of safe driving through 3D vision.

FE: What is the secret to success for a startup? Do you do anything special that’s different from other startups? 

Jiang: NODAR was incorporated in May 2018, so we have been at it for five years. I believe that there are a few differences between us and the average startup:

Autonomy--We make considerable effort to hire people who are experienced, self-motivated, and impassioned by our vision. This enables us to given employees autonomy and empowers them to make decisions and manage their time as they see fit.

A collaborative, open environment that encourages out of the box thinking and experimentation and does not penalize failure.

Success. Nothing unites a team like success. Working at a startup can be a roller-coaster with customer success and losses, financing challenges and turmoil, employee dynamics, and more. But setting a big goal and achieving and celebrating that achievement can unite a team, and boost morale and productivity. So we try to have and celebrate lots of wins together!

Also: Great coffee!

FE: Will you reach a point where you describe yourself as post-startup?

Jiang: In my mind, “post-startup” is when a company demonstrably acquires product-market fit, as defined by customer commitments or revenue. In our case, this will be when we achieve a significant commitment from an OEM to use NODAR technology on a series production vehicle. In automotive, this can be a long journey. But the good news is that we are well on our way there.

FE: What does your tech mean for the lidar market?

Jiang: For some time, the automotive market has bet heavily on lidar. Today, OEMs and Tier 1’s are realizing lidar has shortcomings in this market, both technical and financial. This “awakening” has invigorated a search for reliable 3D sensing alternatives. NODAR is actively engaged in POCs and integrations with players across the automotive value chain, as well as a $1.7M US Army SBIR to develop a stereo vision system for off-road vehicles. NODAR’s patented approach to “untethered” stereo vision offers a viable, higher performing, lower cost alternative to lidar that promises to bring autonomy to mainstream automotive.

Editor's Note: Check out a full list of Best of Sensors honorees at Sensors Converge 2023.