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Ex-Formula 1 engineer puts autonomous vehicles in pole position

Ex-Formula 1 engineer puts autonomous vehicles in pole position

Founder Focus: Thomas Li, Co-Founder Chassis Autonomy 

In this regular founder focus series, we’ll be speaking to Scale-Up members to find out more about the challenges and opportunities within their business. In this instalment, I interviewed Thomas Li, Co-Founder and CTO of Chassis Autonomy.

What’s the background to Chassis Autonomy?

Chassis Autonomy span out from another company in 2021 to commercialise research and development into steering and braking systems for autonomous vehicles.

As you can imagine, the technology required for autonomous vehicles is very different. With an autonomous vehicle, you can no longer rely on a human driver as the back-up in the event of a fault or failure.   You need to add additional redundancy within the critical safety systems, such as steering and braking, to ensure that they can continue to operate even in the event of a system fault.  That is the only way you can ensure the safety of the passengers and other road users.

When do you see that coming to market?

We’ve had a significant engagement with potential customers; these are specifically autonomous vehicle developers rather than traditional car companies.

There have been lots of promises in the last decade that self-driving cars will very shortly be in common use, but that’s just not the case. 2025 is now when our potential customers are saying the initial introduction of autonomous vehicles on the world’s roads is going to occur. So, we’re targeting 2025 for our technology to be ready.

What’s your background?

My first job out of university was to work in Formula One. My degree was from Oxford Brookes and in automotive engineering, with the course focused ultimately on racing and F1. It enabled me to get my first job working with American company SGL Hitco, designing carbon fibre discs and pads for F1 cars. I was fortunate enough to travel the world, going to all the races and supporting the teams, including Renault, which in my first year we, won both World Championships. In subsequent years we worked pretty much with every team on the grid, including Red Bull, McLaren, Honda and Toyota. Some people finish university and go travelling to take a year out. I had the best of both worlds, travelling the world in a job that many of us on the course had only dreamed about.

When did Chassis Autonomy join the Scale-Up programme, and what support have you received?

We joined in April this year. We incorporated in Sweden because we spun out of Swedish OEM, but since I’m London based and due to Brexit, we needed a UK division, so we also incorporated in London soon afterwards.

Sweden and the UK are the two leading countries in Europe for autonomous vehicle development – so it makes sense to be based in these two localities to be close to potential customers and to have significant reach for talent as well. Even with difficult market conditions and a pending recession, getting good talent is extremely difficult.

So far, through the Scale-Up Programme, we’ve successfully applied for a £50k Innovate UK Fast Grant, which will fund the design and build of a demonstration rig for our steering system, and we’re kicking that off in partnership with the University of Surrey. This collaboration has all come about through SETsquared. Our Sector Manager Yuchen has introduced us to various people to try and build collaborations which has been great.

Through the Scale-Up Programme, we were also notified of a free internship scheme – through which we took on two interns – one of whom we’ve kept on. He’s working on our marketing strategy, including a recent re-branding activity, a new website and creating regular content for LinkedIn. Part of the role of our marketing strategy is education – even some potential customers don’t fully understand the implications of where autonomy is going and the limitations with existing technologies, so our marketing plays an important role in educating the market as well as customer lead generation. So, taking a risk with internships has really paid off for us and has been an alternative route to bring in talent to the business.

What do you see as the upcoming opportunities for your business? What’s on the horizon?

We secured our first investment back in April, and that has been sufficient to get to where we are now.

Deep technology and automotive products like this typically require between 20 and 40 million Euros to develop from concept through to production, with a three to four years timeline required as a minimum.

So, unlike going and buying a software company or an app, where you get a return on investment, potentially in six months, with an innovation like ours, you simply can’t do that.

Having said that, we’ve just signed a letter of intent with Kongsberg Automotive, which is a major tier-one supplier of automotive parts to heavy goods vehicles with manufacturing facilities across the world. This has the potential for a deep collaboration, including investment in Chassis Autonomy which will support the engineering and industrialisation of the technology to reach automotive production quality and scale. Having a big industrial partner by our side is an essential part of the jigsaw that will inspire confidence and de-risk our proposition for potential customers.

What advice would you give to other Scale-Up members?

You need to speak to experts, and you need to get some feedback on your business. For example, as a start-up founder, you won’t necessarily understand the investment market. Investors are looking for very specific things in pitch decks, and you need to understand what story you need to tell for different investors. Typically, as a start-up, you’ll focus so much on the product rather than the wider picture and the value proposition. An investor exists to make money. They’ll want to know you’ve got a good product but also the wider picture of the potential size of your market and whether you have customer traction. So even if you end up with over 100 versions of your investment slide deck – it’s worth seeking the advice as it will accelerate your path to investment.

So, find experts like SETsquared and get support and advice. We’ve been going for nearly a year, and we’re still learning on each and every pitch about the best way to convey our vision and the value proposition.  In fact, the pitch has to change as we gain further traction and progress with executing our vision.

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