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May 30, 2017

MIT Spinoff Company Develops Self-Driving Technologies to Enable Safe, Sustainable, and Equitable Mobility Solutions

Sertac Karaman and Ramiro Almeida, co-founders of Optimus Ride, are developing self-driving technologies to enable safe, sustainable, and equitable mobility solutions.

Daniel de Wolff

Sertac Karaman
Optimus Ride

As we strive towards an inevitable future where autonomous vehicles dominate the urban landscape, transporting both people and goods with greater safety and efficiency, Optimus Ride is well positioned to play a significant role in what must be a continual evolution. As of October 2016, they have completed a series seed investment of $5.25M, co-led by NextView Ventures and FirstMark Capital. Other key investors in this latest round of funding that will allow Optimus Ride to accelerate the development of its autonomous vehicle technology systems include NVIDIA GPU Ventures, Nicco Mele, the director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, and Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab. But what sets Optimus Ride apart from other would-be innovators in what is rapidly becoming a congested marketplace?

President and chief scientist, Sertac Karaman points first and foremost to the founding team and their supporting players. “Optimus Ride is a true MIT spinoff. The whole team came together at MIT, representing multiple departments including the Media Lab, CSAIL, Aeronautics, and Sloan,” says Karaman, who is himself an associate professor at MIT in the Aeronautics and Astronautics department, as well as being affiliated with the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and the Institute for Data Systems and Society. Karaman and his co-founders Ramiro Almeida, Ryan Chin, Albert Huang, and Jenny Larios Berlin, are a formidable team. Together they boast over 30 years of interdisciplinary university research in self-driving technologies, electric vehicles, and Mobility-on-Demand Systems, not to mention a decade of industrial and entrepreneurial experience that combines manufacturing robots, urban design, and shared vehicle fleet management.

“We are on the edge of a transportation revolution that will be enabled, in part, by technology and robotics,” says Karaman. He continues, “I believe that Optimus Ride is very well-positioned to be one of the most important players in this domain, as we build self-driving vehicle technologies that will create new transportation systems that will truly transform the industry and have a global impact commensurate with the breakthrough of trains, the affordable car, or the airplane.” As one would expect, with MIT-based experts from a diverse set of disciplines at the helm, Optimus Ride leverages the latest advances in complex sensor fusion, computer vision, and machine learning to develop its systems. Karaman makes it very clear that the technology is just one aspect of a larger whole. The Optimus Ride vision is to provide safe, sustainable, and equitable mobility solutions. These are of course multidimensional terms that take into account a variety of factors including energy efficiency, societal constraints, affordability, the ethical implications of writing code for autonomous vehicles, and even aesthetics, all of which Karaman and the team at Optimus Ride consider in an effort to make transportation and new transportation systems more enjoyable for everyone.

They have worked on a range of different autonomous vehicles, from golf carts to fork lifts. The end goal remains the same: getting the technology to the end user where it can be utilized in urban environments and beyond. With this in mind, they have just moved into a 20,000 sq. ft. facility in the Boston Seaport District that allows them to efficiently design, build, test, and develop their systems further. And they are looking to grow. New, though as yet unnamed pilot locations are in the works. Co-founder Ramiro Almeida says, “As we consider the finer details, we may realize that a system that serves a certain society well may not serve another as well. At Optimus Ride we pay attention to this, and we will be deploying a number of pilots in different places to be able to better identify and understand the variables that make a big difference in different locations as we develop and deploy our technology in these domains.” He continues, “Our technology has the potential to improve quality of life for millions of people around the world. Transportation systems, like taxis, buses, and trains have been around for decades, and we have experienced minor improvements throughout the years. Robotics technologies present a major opportunity to design new systems that consider data and user needs to provide the most efficient solutions that can be adapted at a relatively low cost to any urban environment.”

Karaman recognizes there are many different challenges facing the industry. From developing scalable business models to urban architecture, as well as policy and law. As a technologist he admits he is prone to wanting things to move quickly. That said, looking back on his decade of work in the industry, he is pleased with how rapidly things have progressed, especially in the technology domain. “The kind of technology that we are using is really diverse,” he says. “It’s not just a particular algorithm that enables everything, but it is so many. There are software implementations that are very complex, and even the computers they run on, and the sensors that enable this—they are all coming together at a very fast pace.” And despite the challenges, he thinks we will be surprised at just how quickly the technology will become available. Though he posits, it might not be in the way we expect.

As Optimus Ride reshapes the future, Karaman reflects on what he refers to as “a deep relationship between academia, industry, and innovation.” He recalls working on the DARPA Urban challenge. The public looked at their driverless car as little more than a novel academic project developed in an echo chamber. “Fast forward ten years” he says, “and people recognize that self-driving vehicles are a part of our future, and an essential technology we are going to rely on for a number of transportation and logistics needs.” As MIT has developed a reputation for producing successful startups and the ecosystem has grown, he points to ILP initiatives like MIT Startup Exchange as invaluable tools for strengthening the MIT startup community—not only connecting new tech-based ventures with one another, but with industry and investors capable of providing opportunities for start-ups that began as research projects and demonstrations to become marketable products, one of which might just become the next big innovation to positively transform our lives.

About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.