Mobility Moments Podcast: Diane Lansinger

The way we get around is changing. From connected vehicle technology, to self-driving cars, to shared transportation, Detroit is the region leading the world in mobility. And mobility includes new technology that keeps us safer on the roads. SEEVA Technologies has developed a patented heated liquid system, called SEEVAtherm, that cleans the windshield. It can also clean sensors, cameras and radar on autonomous vehicles. So, how does it work?

What it does is it heats washer fluid using waste heat coming off the engine. It heats it up really quickly, and what you can do is when you heat that washer fluid, you can direct it to any visibility system on the exterior of a car to flash wash that, to get greater safety and visibility in the driving mode.

That was Diane Lansinger, CEO and co-founder of SEEVA Technologies. Her company just secured $1.1 million in new seed funding at this year's North American International Auto Show. Diane is our guest on Mobility Moments Podcast. I'm Claire Charlton.

Diane, welcome, thank you so much for joining me today.

Thank you, Claire, I'm so glad to be here with you.

Your tagline for SEEVA is “Visibility for Mobility.” How does SEEVAtherm contribute to better safety in today's cars as well as in the autonomous cars of the future?

The way SEEVAtherm enhances visibility for mobility on that continuum of today's cars out on the road, and the ones that we're going to be seeing more and more in the future, is we help the drivers see better with heated washer fluid. You can direct that heated washer fluid that we create. We heat the washer fluid up, and you can direct it to windshields that are covered in mud, or freezing rain, or snow, or ice, and you can rapidly clear these when you add heat to the equation of the washer fluid. It makes it much more efficient and faster in terms of how it cleans visibility systems.

Today, drivers can experience better clarity of vision, which increases their safety and better decision making as they're driving. But, the cars themselves are taking more and more of those driver decisions into how they're running the vehicles. Over 90 percent of accidents on the road are actually caused by driver error. So, the goal that all the automotive manufacturers are shooting for is the more we can eliminate drivers from the equation, then the more we can reduce the number of accidents on the road.

With our system you can take that same heated washer fluid that might help you and I as drivers, and direct it to these external hardware systems on the outside of the car. These are cameras, lidar units, different types of sensors that are looking out of the car in the same way that our eyes would. And they're parsing data from this external environment, and shooting that back to the software system that the car is relying on to run, and making driving related decisions.

You founded SEEVA in Seattle, but you have established a presence in Detroit. Why?

Yes, so we are based in Seattle, we have our research and engineering based in Seattle. My chief engineer and CTO are both in that area, but the roots that we have in Detroit are based on the fact that my co-founder and chief engineer is also my dad. Now my dad is Jere Lansinger, he is a former Chrysler automotive engineer. He worked at Chrysler for almost 40 years. He managed engineering teams and products there, and has a couple dozen patents to his name. And when he retired, around the time that he was heading into retirement, he approached Chrysler and said, "I have all these ideas that you say are interesting, but maybe too far horizon, not necessarily something that Chrysler wants to pursue. Could we formalize this list, just a list of what I have, and say I could go moonlight on these. And eventually when I retire, I can take them with me." And they formed an agreement of a dozen or so ideas that my dad had.

When he ended up retiring, we jokingly say in the family that he retired for all of a day. And then, the next day, he started working on his favorite idea, which is how to increase driver visibility by using hot washer fluid to flash wash your windshield, much more quickly than just using a defroster in a cold climate scenario. And while he was working on this technology and got it through minimally-viable prototyping and patenting, the ecosystem of how cars see fundamentally changed. It ended up becoming relevant in advanced driver systems and autonomous vehicles. We got picked up by a major commercial trucking OEM, we have two major automotive OEMs now reviewing this technology for upcoming model years, and we have other OEMs that are looking at this for autonomous vehicle systems integration.

So now, we have presence in Detroit, but based in Seattle. My mom and dad moved out there to be close to the grandkids. I'm ex-Microsoft, which is why we're originally based there. But there's so much automotive talent, of course, here in the Detroit area. And when we made a decision to be kind of co-located, co-headquartered here, it's because specifically, the people that we've hired to bring onto our team, these are leadership positions in our organization. Our COO, for example, is based here in the Ann Arbor area. And we fully expect that we're going to have more people based here so that we can tap into this huge body of talent, of automotive wisdom and expertise, as we grow as a company.

Speaking of cold climate scenarios, some of your product testing was done in the very cold northern Michigan weather. What did you learn from that experience?

We got a request from one of the OEMs, who had said, "Oh, this is really interesting. Can you clear a windshield in under a minute?" And we said, "Yeah, we're pretty sure we can." So, we were looking for what they call a cold cell, or a cold chamber facility, to mock up bad weather and cold climate scenarios. And we ended up locating a facility just outside of Sault Ste. Marie that we rented, and taught ourselves how to do cold cell, cold chamber, testing.

What's funny about that location, though, is I actually happened to grow up here in the Detroit area, moved out to Seattle later on in my career. But my dad and mom have a cabin up in the Upper Peninsula. And where we were testing was not too far from that. My dad has actually been able to do other testing in that region, where he's just driving on the road and, for example, it starts raining and the rains starts freezing. And imagine my dad driving down the road seeing this optimal test condition, and he pulls out his phone and starts videotaping as he's driving. You can actually go up to our website, or YouTube, and see one of these where we're seeing in the Upper Peninsula conditions, freezing rain starting to accumulate on this windshield, getting to the point where if you don't have a good wiper and heated washer fluid system, it would very rapidly become a safety hazard. So, he captured this video. And when it got really bad visibility-wise, he activated the SEEVAtherm system and really quickly cleared the windshield.

So, yeah, Michiganians, Michiganders, they fundamentally get that in cold climates, this is a system that helps a lot with increasing safety.

SEEVA was part of Techstars Mobility Class of 2017. How did being part of this accelerator help you get started?

That was an incredible turbo boost to where we were as a company. My father and I decided to co-found this company together almost a year and a half ago. I looked at not just this product SEEVAtherm, but several other products that he has in development, and this whole portfolio of IP that relates to improving how cars see, and the thermal management systems. I saw an opportunity to wrap a company around his head and form something much bigger than just one particular technology to bring to market.

I proposed to my dad, let's form this company, apply to an accelerator program. And he didn't even know what an accelerator program was, so I explained to him, "Here's how companies start up now in the 21st century. Let's join an accelerator program, raise a round of investment capital, and move forward." So, we applied to the Techstars Mobility program. I think it's the premier, if you're in the automotive space, premier startup accelerator in the world. We were very fortunate to get accepted into this cohort this past year.

What was exciting for us is, I came in with a co-founder who has four decades plus of experience in the automotive industry. We had already had conversations with one major commercial trucking OEM and three major passenger vehicle OEMs. So, we weren't sure how much the accelerator program would help us on the business development/sales side, but we knew we'd learn a lot about fundraising and more about the startup ecosystem here in Detroit.

And what ended up happening is, we were suddenly in this program, exposed to over 250 different mentors from all of the major automotive OEMs, all of the major Tier 1 suppliers who are a part of this mentor group that the Techstars Mobility program has recruited. We ended up getting more major validations from some of the big OEMs, engineering groups that we had not yet had a chance to talk to, we were suddenly exposed to as mentors. Same thing on the supplier side, and we learned just a lot about how to figure out our manufacturing, production, and supply chain.

That's actually where we met the person that we ended up hiring as our chief operating officer. He was one of the mentors in the program. And as he was working with us in a mentoring capacity, it became clear very quickly that this guy would be a 10X for us on talent and insights. He used to run a smaller, $100 million or so, supplier in the automotive space. And we ended up being able to bring him onboard in the team. And yeah, that's just a tribute, I think, to the Techstars Mobility accelerator program. If there's a startup out there that's thinking of applying in the automotive space, you should absolutely do it.

All of that good stuff--those good connections-- continues, because you just announced at the North American International Auto Show, $1.1 million in new seed funding. How will this funding help move SEEVA forward?

Our seed funding round is all about building 12 to 18 months of runway for the company. This is enabling us to put together manufacturing. We're working with a contract manufacturer here in the southeastern Michigan area to contract manufacture our product for OEMs that are considering placement. We actually already have an OEM order that we are producing for. So, part of it is building that up.

The other thing that we're doing is building out our team. We have a vision for SEEVA, where it's not just about SEEVAtherm, but it's about this book of products that we have ideas around, that we know that we can finish productizing and commercializing, bringing them to market.

And then, we have a couple of ideas in our back pocket about what we want to tackle next to make it even broader than these visibility systems that we have already prototyped.

Just share with me your opinion about why Detroit really is the best place for mobility innovators to be right now.

Well, first of all, Detroit is the first major technology startup city in North America, period, I think. If you think about the automotive industry a hundred, a hundred and ten years ago, you've got Henry Ford founding Ford, you've got people coming here figuring out how do we do large scale manufacturing of highly-engineered vehicles. There's this DNA here in Detroit of, "We can build it here." And an amazing kind of life-changing type of technology that we can bring to market. There's a hundred years of experience in that here.

And then there's the fact that we've got this major sea change happening in all the automotive companies, all the Tier 1 suppliers here, in terms of how we build cars. And the big thing that's really driving that has to do with, if you're decreasing the percentage of what drivers are contributing to the ride equation and taking humans out of that and moving towards autonomous vehicles, you know, we've got this knowhow here that it's going to happen at scale. You have to include Detroit and the talent here.

It's kind of an unusual situation, you co-founded SEEVA with your father, who's your chief engineer, Jere Lansinger. Can you share a highlight of your father-daughter teamwork experience up to now?

Absolutely, yeah. My dad and I, we've always had a great father-daughter relationship. As I mentioned earlier, I am ex-Microsoft. I worked there in technical recruiting for quite some time. And then from there, I started my own company in the technical recruiting space, was going through a second startup company that I had founded. And my dad had retired around that same time, and so we were cheerleading each other on the entrepreneurial end, saying, "Go for it. Go take the risk, chase your passions, your dreams." And then suddenly, my dad, he ended up getting these major OEMs interested in his technology. And we realized what was sort of a cheerleading, supportive conversation starting shifting a little over a year ago, to a way that we were talking about business really as peers. And ideas I had for him to go pursue the market opportunity that I was seeing, as sort of a outsider looking in.

From there, it just became a conversation around, he was looking for a co-founder, I happened to have flexibility at that time to help him out, and I got deep into his whole IP portfolio. And I realized it was much cooler than what I was working on. One thing led to another, we end up in the Techstars Mobility program. And for me, what was probably the best to see was actually just seeing my dad as a guy with a bunch of engineers talking about technology and all the exciting things that are happening in the automotive space. And seeing him alongside other co-founders that were a part of the program, just geeking out about what they're all working on, and joking and laughing and just diving in.

My dad turned 78 in the middle of the program, he's the oldest person to ever go through a Techstars program, not just the Mobility Program. But they run about three dozen programs around the world. But he just dove right in like any bright, excited engineer would who's passionate about the work that they do. And I consider him a role model.

Awesome. Thank you so much for talking with me today, Diane, and sharing insight into the mobility ecosystem here in Detroit. I've really enjoyed it.

Oh, likewise Claire. Thank you so much.

For Detroit Driven, this was Mobility Moments Podcast. I'm Claire Charlton. Learn more about how Detroit is the region leading the world in mobility by visiting Sign up for our newsletter while you're there.

This podcast was hosted by Claire Charlton, and produced and edited by Nina Ignaczak for Issue Media Group.
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