Welcome to ‘Crazy for ConTech’ with Romey Oulton, a Q&A focused on the Construction Technology Industry.
This Q&A series is an opportunity for our North American Consultant Romey Oulton to discuss all things construction technology with key players who are championing innovation and digitalisation in the construction space.
SafeAI is a global autonomous solutions provider for heavy machinery. SafeAI enables off-highway equipment owners to convert existing fleets with retrofit autonomous technology, regardless of vehicle type or manufacturer. The significant value of this is demonstrated through gains in increased worksite productivity, safety and cost savings. SafeAI is headquartered in Santa Clara, CA and has offices in Perth, Tokyo and Noida, India to serve their global audience.
Can you describe the inspiration behind starting SafeAI? What problem did you aim to solve, and what motivated you to tackle it?
I got my start in the autonomy industry twenty years ago at the DARPA Grand Challenge while I was studying for my PhD and I’ve been hooked ever since. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of exciting self-driving projects at companies like Caterpillar, Apple, and Ford. And after dabbling in both on-road and off-road autonomy, I determined that the most immediate opportunity for this tech is off-road, in industries like mining and construction.
These industries have an acute need for the safety and efficiency autonomous equipment can provide, and a massive opportunity for immediate deployment due to the highly controlled nature of these sites. I was drawn to the opportunity to roll autonomous vehicles out at scale in the near-term to deliver significant, tangible impact.
I started SafeAI because I saw a gap in the off-road autonomy market. Many of the autonomy providers at the time sold new autonomous equipment, which is often cost-prohibitive and difficult to scale (especially for smaller companies). I believed we could accelerate the transition toward safer, more productive heavy industry by enabling companies to upgrade their existing equipment with retrofit autonomy. This approach significantly lowers the barrier to entry and enables more companies to reap the benefits of self-driving equipment, without a massive price tag.
What is unique about SafeAI VS competitors?
SafeAI provides vehicle-agnostic, OEM-agnostic retrofit technology. This enables mining and construction companies to be proactive vs. reactive when it comes to upgrading their fleets, and gives them unparalleled flexibility to improve their operations. Companies can look at their workflows and fleets, determine where they need to improve safety and efficiency, and work with SafeAI to retrofit a vehicle to meet that need. They don’t need to wait for an autonomous model of the precise vehicle they need to hit the market, and they don’t need to buy an entirely new fleet to make improvements. This is a more flexible, cost-effective, and scalable approach to deploying autonomy on-site.
What potential impact does AI and Generative AI present in transforming the heavy industry? What are the potential challenges and barriers it must overcome?
Generative AI will be revolutionary for heavy industry. With its ability to understand complex patterns and dependencies in data, it has the potential to improve a wide variety of tasks. A few initial thoughts on where I think it can be impactful:
I think there’s also potential for impact in autonomous equipment operation, project management, material discovery, and process optimization. It’s still very early days, but I’m excited about the role generative AI will play in our industry.
As a CEO/Founder, what learnings did you take from working at Fortune 100 companies like Apple, into the world of start-ups? Were there any unexpected obstacles along the way, and how did you navigate them?
In my early career, I was fortunate to work at companies at the top of their fields, like Caterpillar and Apple. What I took away from these experiences is the importance of process and persistence. These companies approach everything they do with rigor, precision, and extreme attention to detail. And they do this day in and day out, diligently attacking the challenge at hand. This is how they consistently push the industry forward, and so this is the mindset that I brought to SafeAI. Of course, we have to approach things a bit differently. As a start-up, we don’t have the same number of people or the same resources as a Fortune 100 company. But the principle is the same: we created a rigorous process that enables our team to produce great work for our customers, and we diligently carry out that process every day.
As a leader in the AI space, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs or innovators who are looking to make a positive impact through technology-driven solutions to mining and construction?
I’ll start by saying that I’m a firm believer that AI is going to transform every single industry. The recent advances around generative AI have only accelerated this movement. I think we’ll soon think of it like the internet—integral to the way companies do business.
So my first advice is if you’re in the AI field, stay there. And if you’re not, get in there. This technology is about to transform everything about how we do business. My second piece of advice is to focus on real problems. The trendiest or most exciting technology doesn’t win; the technology that solves a real industry problem wins. Take mining as an example. One of the first things we focused on at SafeAI was automating load-haul-dump cycles—a repetitive, monotonous, time-consuming thorn in the side of most mining companies. Focus on pressing challenges that you can solve to drive near-term adoption and impact.
In your opinion, what are some of the main shortcomings or challenges that exist in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the mining and construction space? How do you believe these challenges can be addressed effectively?
Construction and mining are historically male-dominated industries. In recent years, these industries have also struggled to attract a younger workforce, turned off by things like risky working conditions, hard labor, and a relative lack of technological opportunity. There are several things that need to happen to address these and other challenges—from rethinking hiring practices to adjusting workplace protocols—but I do think technology has a key role to play as well. I see technology as both a neutralizer and a major draw for people of all backgrounds and experiences.
Growth plans for SafeAI: 1 year, 3 years, 5 years (i.e: geographies, products, verticals, hiring, funding)
One of our top company values is “never disappoint the customer.” Right now, we are laser-focused on helping our customers meet their milestones, scale their autonomous deployments, and make their job sites safer and more productive. This is the north star of everything we do, and will be for the foreseeable future.
But to continue to do this successfully, we will need to do two things: grow our team and advance our technology. In the next year or two, we are focused on growing our operations team to support customers on the ground in the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India, as well as looking into new markets where mining and construction have a significant presence. We will also continue to hone and uplevel our autonomous technology, including exploring new technologies like generative AI.
What does diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to you? What value does it bring to you and your team?
DEI means creating a fair, respectful environment where everyone feels comfortable, regardless of their identity or background. It means embracing diversity of thought and experience. And it’s integral to creating creative, innovative teams that feel free to bring their full selves to work and speak their minds.
Tell us about your approach to talent acquisition and culture? Has it changed over the past few years? If so, how?
Getting the right talent is hard no matter what. We take a three-pronged approach to talent acquisition: attending industry events, speaking at local universities to meet young technical talent, and working with recruiters.
In your experience, how highly do you value VC funding/support for a start-up to be successful?
VC support has been integral in bringing our vision to life at SafeAI. It’s absolutely critical to partner with people that deeply understand and believe in your vision and want to see your company succeed as much as you do. That has made all the difference for SafeAI in our first few years.
What is your guilty pleasure? And favorite song?
I enjoy reading books by other successful founders on their unique start up journeys, and I love spending time with my wife and two young children.
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