Each week, we sit down with a different member of AEye’s leadership team to discuss their role, their view of challenges and opportunities in the industry, and their take on what lies ahead.
This week, we talk with Senior Vice President of R&D, John Stockton.
1. Your title recently evolved, to SVP of R&D. That’s obviously a strategic decision. Tell me about your role and how it fits within the company.
I help find technical solutions and vendors for key components and the supply chain required to build low cost, high-performance LiDAR systems. This role lets me use my previous start-up and VC experience, as well as the technical experience I have gained from my time working at AEye, to work with companies in the AEye supply chain. The job has a large technology component as well as an operations component, which makes it a lot of fun.
2. Tell us about the types of problems you solve, and how you unearth the right solutions.
My role is basically a technology match-maker, which means that I often talk to start-up companies and even groups within large companies to see how their technology may fit into our applications. Additionally, I spend time making sure that these potential suppliers know about the kinds of requirements that we will have in the future. These relationships span multiple years since these projects tend to be very complex and require multiple fabrication runs to achieve.
3. How do you work with other teams within AEye, and how important is it to collaborate?
After some initial technology screening, I immediately involve multiple technologists within AEye since each of these technologies are very complex and have lots of interactions with multiple systems within AEye. LiDARs are very multi-disciplinary and each of the technologies tend to touch multiple parts of the LiDAR system. Technology development is definitely a team sport!
4. You are a seasoned entrepreneur and executive who has been CEO of three technology companies, founder of one, and a venture capitalist focused on semiconductor/MEMS/EDA and automotive sectors. Why join a startup at this stage of your career, and why AEye?
When I became an advisor with AEye, I was deeply impressed with the technology know-how in the team, and since then I have been further impressed with the business side of the company. At this point in my career, I’d rather be a contributor to a strong team rather than trying to do something like this solely on my own, so I took the opportunity to join the team at AEye about four years ago.
5. How has your experience as a VC informed your decision-making in this role?
This experience has enabled me to feel comfortable assessing technology, team and business risks. This experience has also helped me judge schedules and resources required to meet them for both our internal efforts as well as for claims made by vendors. Being around a bunch of start-ups has been useful in observing all the mistakes that other companies have made in the past so that hopefully we won’t repeat them.
6. What do you see, from your vantage point, as the biggest technology challenges for LiDAR companies?
Supply chain maturity. In general all of the components used in 1550nm LiDAR systems have other applications in lower volume, niche markets. The big challenge is to work with vendors for key components to develop a set of specifications that meet the requirements of our LiDAR and then also help these vendors scale their production into volumes that make sense for automotive applications.
7. How are you helping AEye overcome these challenges?
We have multiple development projects going on with vendors for key components at the same time. Additionally we often try to develop multiple vendors for key components so we can establish a robust supply chain that is free of risk from single points of failure.
8. You were CEO at ARC International, a semiconductor intellectual property company. How important is IP in this space, how are you protecting it, and does this become more challenging as the market matures?
IP is always an important asset for start-up as well as large companies. Since one aspect of our business involves licensing technology to Tier 1 partners, the IP is the essence of what we license, and having it perfected through patents, trademarks and trade secrets is vital.
9. You have a degree in nuclear and electrical engineering. Any advice to young people who want to follow in your footsteps?
For college age students – do multiple internships and work on projects related to your field of study. For fresh-out engineers – realize that you are on a technology treadmill that never stops. For everyone else, stay engaged with technology developments so you don’t become stale and outdated. You are never out of school!
10. What’s your favorite mode of transportation, and why?
Boats! I’m anxious to see how LiDAR and electrification can help change one of the oldest modes of transportation known to man. Outside of my personal hobby, the electrification of automobiles is a big trend currently and has the chance to shuffle the dominant players in the automotive industry in the coming years.