When Alden Woodrow and his team at Ike, an autonomous trucking technology company, first made the rounds of investors in Silicon Valley, they pitched a decidedly low-key approach to getting their software to market.
“We very explicitly said, ‘If you want us to launch a product in the next 18 months, you should not invest because that will not be possible,’” said Woodrow, Ike’s co-founder CEO.
That kind of truth telling probably lost them some investors, Woodrow said.
Others were sold. In 2019, a year after coming out of stealth, Ike raised $52 million in a Series A funding round.
Woodrow spoke during Wednesday’s FreightTech Venture Summit about the startup’s low key approach to fundraising and how the team leveraged that humility, along with experience and partnerships, into a leading autonomous trucking company.
Instead of building its own autonomous vehicle software stack, Ike is licensing one from Nuro, a startup focused on delivery robots. “We literally copied their software repository from their server in Mountain View onto our server, drove the server to San Francisco and began applying it to trucking,” said Woodrow.
Another ace in the hole was the Ike team’s collective experience working at Google, Apple and Uber ATG, the tech-transportation’s self-driving vehicle division. “What allowed us to raise capital is a combination of the team’s experience and pretty clear view as to what it would take to build a product in this area,” said Woodrow, “and then plugging in advantage from Nuro that gives us a head start.”
Charlie Dehoney, a president with Fitzmark, a 3PL, moderated the conversation with Woodrow. He asked Woodrow about his approach to the “minimal viable product” (MVP), one with enough features to attract early-adopter customers and validate an idea early in the product-development cycle.
The MVP is considered a must-have in the startup ecosystem. But here again, according to Woodrow, Ike sits in a different place than most other freight-tech startups.
“We do not have a product today,” Woodrow said, explaining Ike is “still in development of our product” and “has more work to do.” Although it’s understandable for most startups to do a minimal viable product, he said, when you’re building automation technology there is a new layer of challenge — “the safety criticality of the system.”
“The trucks we’re powering are sharing the road with families in minivans and other drivers,” he said. What MVP means in that context is a much higher bar.”
Alluding to Uber’s failed self-driving truck project, Woodrow said one of the places his team has made mistakes in the past as individuals “is trying to tread that path with MVP with technology that is hard to build an MVP for.”
Woodrow and Dehoney discussed the disruptive mentality many Silicon Vally freight-tech companies bring to the trucking space. “They focus on coming in and being the smartphone to an analog phone,” Woodrow said.
Ike, by contrast, approaches the trucking industry with modesty.
“I’ve learned how sophisticated the [trucking] industry is,” Woodrow said, “the value of many decades of experience and how that applies to building a productive, safe part of the economy.
“While we have new things to bring, some expertise, a huge amount of expertise already exists,” he said. “That plays into the position we want to take: trying to be part of the trucking industry and contribute to the industry being successful.”