Oct. 22, 2019 - 3 min read

A Conversation with Chris Urmson, Reid Hoffman, and Mike Volpi

A Conversation with Chris Urmson, Reid Hoffman, and Mike Volpi

Mike Volpi, Chris Urmson, and Reid Hoffman spoke to students at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

Insights on Building Companies and Self-Driving Technology

Recently, Chris Urmson and members of our Board of Directors visited Pittsburgh, one of our company headquarters and a city bustling with self-driving tech development. They stopped by Carnegie Mellon, Chris’s alma mater, to meet with students and share their insights and experiences building companies and self-driving cars.

Index Ventures partner Mike Volpi moderated the conversation with Chris and Reid Hoffman, co-LinkedIn founder and general partner at Greylock. Here are some highlights, edited slightly for clarity.

Why startups are magical:

Reid: One of the things I find magical and similarly awesome about startups, is that startups can say: “How do we accomplish something that changes the world by taking a really interesting coherent risk?” It’s about doing something bold, and therefore something possibly big.

Picking co-founders you believe in and trust:

Chris: When starting Aurora, I had an opportunity to help build something that could accelerate this technology coming to market. I had a unique skillset and experience base to do it, but I also knew this task was Herculean. I started to think about the tremendous people I could build a company with and the skills that would really complement what I had.

Take one of my co-founders, Professor Drew Bagnell (at Carnegie Mellon). He has world-class experience at applying machine learning to robotics problems. I’d also known Drew for 20 years: we went to grad school together, he was a person I trusted, he has tremendous character, and he is a good human being.

If you’re going to go do something hard, that’s the kind of person you want to go do it with: somebody you believe in and trust.

Investing in the self-driving space:

Reid: I tend to look at how networks become platforms. LinkedIn’s obviously an example of that — same with Airbnb and others. Part of the autonomous vehicle transformation of the world is building a network that essentially transforms the grid itself.

As an investor, one of the questions that immediately occurs to me when I see a world transformation is “How can I help facilitate that, participate in it, and accelerate it?”

Advantages of having deep experience in the space:

Chris: We started Aurora in 2017. Compared to 2009, the world is now fundamentally different in regards to the technology we have at our disposal like cloud computing and deep learning. There’s a bunch of technology we have now, and a breadth of experience for us to say “Oh, there’s a giant pitfall over here, let’s not step on that.” Instead of building an engineering system that allows us to see over the next hill, figuratively speaking, we understand where the mountain is and can build a system that gets us to the top of that.

On the business side, it’s the recognition that we can’t do everything. And so, Aurora’s philosophy is to do the thing that we can be best at in the world, and that is building a Driver. And then we go find other great companies to work and partner with. We won’t be Uber or Lyft or FedEx or UPS, but we plan to be the Driver that powers those businesses.

Reid: Given Aurora’s deep experience, they’re doing version two of self-driving. They’re able to ask: “What are the things that you needed to know before, what are the things that are accelerants, what are the key things that are actually, in fact, challenges?”

Safety and access as motivating factors:

Chris: Since 40,000 Americans die on our roads every year, we were pretty clear at first that self-driving tech could save lives. We knew if we could build a Driver that was able to pay attention the whole time while driving, that would be transformational for safety. I also had a chance to talk to folks who had physical limitations — in particular, members of the blind community. We talked about their daily challenges getting from A to B. They had to rely on a patchwork of public transit, or impose on friends and family. It made it much harder for them to do the things that I take for granted.

Importance of staying independent:

Chris: Despite the amount of money that’s been invested and the amount of noise in the press, we are still very early in this evolution and revolution. So the ability to be dynamic and flexible is extremely important to our success. By being independent, we can have a much bigger impact in the world.

— Interested in joining Chris and the Aurora team on our mission to deliver the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly? Join us: https://aurora.tech/careers

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