He founded Luminar in 2012 when he was still a teenager, leaving Stanford University to focus on his company.
In an interview with MarketWatch, Russell talked about remote work, why Elon Musk is wrong about autonomous vehicles and what it’s like to be a billionaire.
MarketWatch: What has the COVID situation been like for you and your company?
Russell: You can’t let it pause everything that’s going on with the actual company. There are still timelines and deliverables that we have to hit. We’ve been able to meet all of them, but no question it’s been an intense process. I still work closely hands-on with the team, as we get through things.
MarketWatch: You started Luminar as a teenager. Why?
Russell: What particularly focused me on Lidar (laser technology) and specifically Lidar for autonomous vehicles was just the massive societal as well as economic impact that you can have. It became clear these $100,000 roof rack setups of giant spinning systems and other things were not ever going to make their way into production vehicles much less meet the required performance and safety specifications.
I’ve always thought of things differently; I was building supercomputer systems when I was 9, 10, 11 years old.
MarketWatch: Why lasers?
Russell: I saw it as a new frontier for the way industry was evolving. It’s something that I was really surprised to see despite the importance and significance that it was going to dictate over the course of the next couple of decades how few people were in the photonics world. Most of the time the kind of research that goes on, it doesn’t actually find its way into the real world. It kind of sticks in this academia cycle. You can get a nice paper published in Nature Science or wherever but if you want to actually see it proliferate throughout world and have it make a difference, that’s where going all in on it from a company side made sense.
MarketWatch: How has your management style changed during the pandemic?
Russell: At the most fundamental level it remains unchanged. Our timelines haven’t changed, our deliverables haven’t changed. What has changed of course is being remote, we have probably a majority of our workforce remote. It’s definitely different but when it comes down to it, you have to work even closer with your leadership team. You want to make sure you don’t lose that element of creativity —from those personal interactions.
There are times when you can form small in-person pods of people to be able to work with and quarantine together. It’s not just a binary “all on” or “all off” thing and that’s what we have been learning.
MarketWatch: What pitfalls are you seeing from remote work?
Russell: In the earlier stages of the business, I think this could be catastrophic. If you don’t have that ability to have quick feedback and kind of a more innovative mentality and problem-solving mentality, that could be a huge challenge towards successfully realizing a vision.
The reason its been less detrimental to us is that we are very specifically focused on execution at this stage. For those that don’t have a product that is fully developed, I think it can have an effect on the timelines that people were thinking about as well as in general on the development cycle.
What it has done is forced companies in the industry to step back and think more existentially — think about the technologies that are going to define the next 10 years instead of the next 5.
MarketWatch: Why go public, and why use a SPAC?
Russell: We’ve always talked internally that the first opportunity for an AV company to go public and for it to actually make sense would be after a production win because production deals give you long-term revenue.
The reality is any revenue in the AV space today is just R&D and its not actually indicative of necessarily anything going forward maybe beyond some minimal baseline. It’s about production deals. That was the catalyst for going public — of course it’s nice to be able to have $600 million in gross proceeds for the business. In the private world there’s only so many people that can write $600 million checks.
MarketWatch: After Luminar went public, there were a lot of “Austin Russell billionaire” stories out there. Did you pay attention to that?
Russell: Yeah [laughs]. I did. The important part is that it’s a milestone in terms of value creation for the overall business. I’ve been able to retain a sizable equity stake in the business, a lot of times founders end up getting diluted to nothingness over time which is really unfortunate.
The overall dilution to our employees and myself was actually surprisingly minimal compared to other types of companies. Couldn’t be more exciting for me at the end of the day. The IPO itself is not about me — it’s about the team and the journey.
MarketWatch: The under-30 billionaire list was basically Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, Kylie Jenner and you.
Russell: We are basically all the same [laughs]. Here’s what I will say, I do have a lot of respect for the Zuckerbergs and Bill Gateses of the world, guys who were able to create huge value in their careers. Einstein talked about how one of the wonders of the world was compounding interest in that you can have significant value creation over time the earlier you start. It’s for sure special. I think I missed Zuckerberg by about a year so I lost on that one.
MarketWatch: Tesla CEO Elon Musk and others have been critical of the Lidar technology your company uses for its vehicles. Why are they wrong?
Russell: Our 50 other commercial partners and seven of the top 10 largest auto makers in the world would probably disagree with Elon along with pretty much every expert in the industry. I think he’s kind of on an island there. Back when Elon started with his anti-lidar ideas, he promised the world he could deliver this full self-driving stack off this basic camera solution.
Cameras are really good at seeing some things out there in 2D and kind of understanding the general picture of what was going on. Not very accurate and reliable. It’s orders of magnitude different from what you can do with a lidar and what’s actually needed to solve an autonomous problem.
MarketWatch: What is Musk not seeing?
Russell: What Tesla has today, what they call full self driving you don’t need lidar for. The problem is that it’s not full self driving (laughs), it’s actually not self driving at all. That’s where I think they have drawn huge criticism in the industry with this rogue branding approach to what is being delivered.
Lidar gives you a true 3-D understanding, not a 2D understanding. Instead of keeping your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times, take your hands and eyes off, use your phone, read a book, watch a movie. Actually autonomous.
MarketWatch: You deal with mostly AVs, but do you think there an EV bubble?
Russell: I think [long pause].
MarketWatch: I understand it’s a loaded question.
Russell: It totally is, but it’s a good question to ask. I think everybody asks themselves this question. The nature of EVs is clearly incredibly promising. Clearly it’s going to be replacing combustion engine vehicles. Is it going to be doing it at an extremely rapid pace like a wildfire? Probably not. Is it going to happen over time and is there going to be massive value creation over time? Absolutely. I just think people are looking farther into the future now than they did before and that’s why you’re seeing this crazy exponential value increase.
AVs I see as actually a bigger trend just from the sheer applicability of the technology. It is interesting to me that EVs have gotten a lot of attention. AVs not quite as much.