At the heart of Aurora’s technology and mission are the individuals behind it. In our series, Aurora Voices, we share the unique voices and stories of the people of Aurora, celebrating our backgrounds as well as personal and professional experiences. Today we’re featuring a conversation with Carl Eschenbach, a member of Aurora’s Board of Directors and a partner at Sequoia Capital, which led Aurora’s Series B fundraising round and is also a PIPE investor in Aurora’s recently announced plans to go public via SPAC.
With nearly 30 years of operating experience, Carl is eager to help founders develop operating models, grow and scale revenue, and build winning go-to-market strategies. His background is across all types of infrastructure technologies, both on-premises and in the public cloud. Prior to Sequoia Capital, he served as the President and Chief Operating Officer of VMware, where he helped the company scale from 200 to 20,000 people, and was the VP, North America Sales at Inktomi Corporation.
Here’s more about why Carl and the Sequoia team believe in Aurora, where he’d go in a self-driving car, and more.
What excites you and your firm, Sequoia Capital, about self-driving technology? And what initially attracted you to Aurora?
We’ve always believed today’s automotive industry was poised for a radical transformation on a massive scale. It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, but when. Self-driving technology has the potential to disrupt the entire automotive industry, bring a new level of safety to our roads, and improve the lives of people by giving them back something valuable—time.
To start, Aurora’s executive team is extremely high-caliber—the level of technical and leadership talent was clear to us from the start. From the first time Sequoia spent the day with Chris Urmson, we knew he was a special technologist and leader who was laser-focused on solving one of the hardest technical challenges of our generation. Then when he handpicked his co-founders, Sterling Anderson of Tesla and MIT and Drew Bagnell of Uber and Carnegie Mellon, industry leaders in their own right, we dubbed them the “dream team” of self-driving cars. Aurora’s culture has also remained consistent throughout its rapid growth. We see the same authenticity and humility that we respected so much in Chris reflected throughout the company.
Since the beginning, Sequoia has seen this partnership with Aurora as an opportunity to support an amazing team building innovative technology and leading the next radical transformation of transportation. Just as the first automobiles revolutionized human life more than a century ago, we recognize that autonomous vehicles will fundamentally change the lives of people around the world.
Let’s get down to brass tacks here. There are lots of companies in the autonomous vehicle space. What are the three reasons investors should bet on Aurora?
First, Aurora’s leadership team is world-class with many of the best minds in all of self-driving. Second, the Aurora Driver is a common platform that can be easily adapted for both trucking and passenger mobility. And third, the strength of Aurora’s partnerships across trucking, ride-hailing, and Tier 1 suppliers gives them a massive advantage.
You’ve been successful in coaching companies throughout their lifecycle. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs just starting out? And what does this milestone mean for Aurora?
My advice for leaders and entrepreneurs is to “be contagious.” Companies have a tendency to run at the pace of their leaders and if you don’t bring passion, enthusiasm, and energy to the table as a founder, you’re already behind. But if you’re driven and responsive and you work hard, that energy will be contagious.
In terms of Aurora, this milestone shows how far they’ve come in delivering their vision of the Aurora Driver. While this is just one milestone along the journey of the company, it will bring much more visibility to Aurora – their technology, the strength of their leadership team, and their industry experience. It’s also an opportunity for them to raise additional funding as they deliver on their goal of delivering the benefits of self-driving technology safely, quickly, and broadly.
Building great tech is only one piece of the puzzle. Companies also have to bring it to market. Can you talk about Aurora’s path to commercialization?
Aurora has a differentiated go-to-market strategy that enables rapid and efficient entry into multiple verticals. Fiercely independent, they’ve positioned themselves to work with a variety of partners, from ride-sharing companies to manufacturers to suppliers—which enables them to move more quickly than any one competitor can alone. They will start with trucking, where they have an advantage with their FirstLight Lidar, and then expand into passenger mobility and eventually goods delivery. Their common platform, which enables them to service both markets, will be powerful. Plus, their Driver as a Service business model offers attractive unit economics and can be adopted by multiple partners in an asset-light way.
Have you seen the tech in action? What was that like?
Our team has had the opportunity to ride in a self-driving vehicle powered by the Aurora Driver! Not only was it impressive, it was also clear how much the company values safety. It’s also been really incredible to see the additional capabilities the team continues to add—like detecting small objects, accommodating emergency vehicles, and navigating construction zones.
For everyone reading this, do you have a book recommendation? What can’t you take off your nightstand?
One of my favorite books that I’ve recommended to over 50 people is Halftime by Bob Buford. It’s kind of a sports analogy for how to shift from success to significance—to stop thinking in terms of professional achievement and start focusing on the impact you want to have. I’ve had it on my nightstand for over 10 years.
Okay, final question. If you could go anywhere in a self-driving car, where would you go and why?
I look forward to the day when I can do a cross-country trip with my family in a self-driving vehicle. It would allow us to enjoy the scenery and spend more quality time having deep conversations.