MAY 4 2022
Published in the Australian Financial Review
Artificial intelligence robotics company Advanced Navigation is set to acquire Australian National University spin-out Vai Photonics, which is in talks with NASA to use its navigation technology on the next moon landing, in a deal worth up to $40 million.
Both companies are developing technology to enable precise, autonomous navigation in difficult terrains where there is no GPS.
Advanced Navigation sprang from co-founder Xavier Orr’s research into AI-based inertial navigation, techniques using a computer, motion sensors and rotation sensors to determine a position.
Vai Photonics combines an analytical investigative process known as laser interferometry with electro-optics and advanced algorithms to measure how fast something is moving, and where it is located, with extreme precision.
Mr Orr said he met the Vai founders – physicists Lyle Roberts and James Spollard – through Advanced Navigation’s work with ANU over the past five years developing its fibre-optic gyroscope.
“We were looking at [Vai’s] tech and there were some real synergies,” he told The Australian Financial Review.
“It’s right where our specialty lies and feeds into the company’s mission of driving the autonomy revolution. It has a lot of applications across autonomous systems including in aerospace, weather management and prediction, and space vehicles.”
Mr Orr said Vai’s technology was world-leading and would eventually be critical for the development of things such as flying cars.
The company is already in discussions with NASA to use the navigation technology on its next moon landing project, slated for 2024.
Since being founded in 2012 by Mr Orr and Chris Shaw, Advanced Navigation has developed products spanning underwater acoustics, antennas and receivers, radio frequency systems, inertial sensors and robotics, and counts the likes of Airbus, Boeing, Google, Apple and General Motors as customers.
Vai Photonics’ technology has been in development for more than 15 years at ANU, but it was spun out as a business in 2021. The company had been in the process of a seed venture capital funding round and had offers on the table, when the two companies decided it made sense to merge.
Advanced Navigation is also in the midst of a capital raise, expected to be between $80 million to $135 million, and Mr Orr is in the US this week speaking to potential investors.
The acquisition has been done on an all-scrip basis, and is worth between $30 million to $40 million.
“Precision navigation when GPS is unavailable or unreliable is a major challenge in the development of autonomous systems,” Mr Spollard said.
“Our emerging photonic sensing technology will enable positioning and navigation that is orders of magnitude more stable and precise than existing solutions in these environments.
“We can measure how fast a vehicle is moving in three dimensions. As a result, we can accurately measure how the vehicle is moving through the environment, and from this infer where the vehicle is located with great precision.”
Mr Orr said Vai’s technology was also going to be developed down to a chip version, “which is planned for a few years from now, and that will be used in the automotive industry”.
“It takes a long time to build a photonics manufacturing facility, so it’s a lot quicker to market for them [having been acquired by us],” Mr Orr said.
Vai Photonics is the second successful start-up from ANU’s Centre for Gravitational Astrophysics, and was part of a growing group of companies to be spun out of the university. Others include Quantum Brilliance, Samsara Eco and Liquid Instruments.
ANU vice chancellor and Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt said that a decade ago the university was only spinning out one or two companies a year, but now it was producing on average 10 companies a year.
“Most of the start-ups we’re talking about are super high tech, in quantum or advanced chemistry – they’re not just an idea or an app,” he said.
“The tech is the best in the world, period. We want to create sovereign capabilities in these areas.”
Two major drivers of the university’s success in spinning out companies, he said, were the establishment of more funding for deep tech innovations thanks to the likes of CSIRO’s venture capital fund Main Sequence Ventures, and the university’s willingness to forgo royalties.
“Our approach is to do everything we can to get these ideas out. We only take a stake in companies that we invest in. Any return we have is connected to the cash we’ve invested,” Professor Schmidt said.
“We also provide flexible conditions to staff and students that allows them to spin out a company, and be promoted and made famous in university circles.”