At two, he learned the periodic table – at 25, he’s the last billionaire in tech

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This is an exclusive club including Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook and Evan Spiegel from Snapchat.

Now 25-year-old Austin Russell has joined them to become one of the few entrepreneurs to become a billionaire before the age of 30.

He did this when Luminar Technologies, the company he co-founded and of which he is CEO, went public.

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Lidar technology maps and measures distances using rapid pulses of laser light PIC: Luminar Technologies

The company, which specializes in driverless vehicle technology, had a valuation of $ 3.4bn (£ 2.5bn) on admission and its shares soared 31% when trading began today .

Mr Russell, who dropped out of the prestigious Stanford University seven years ago after receiving a $ 100,000 (£ 74,000) scholarship from Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, described bringing Luminar to market as “Absolutely incredible”.

He told CNBC, “This is a really, really special time for us and we’re really excited about all of the value creation we’ve had.

“Despite all the headwinds we’ve had in 2020… it’s been really fantastic. ”

Asked about his fortune, Mr Russell – who claims to have learned the periodic table of chemistry when he was only two years old – replied: “There’s one part of it that’s totally surreal and another part that makes perfect sense.

” It is difficult to explain.

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Technology allows cars to navigate more efficiently using a 3D road map PIC: Volvo Cars

“But that has always been the goal – we created the company to become a long-term, sustainable company to propel the future of autonomy for these automakers.

“We are all gone for the long haul. ”

Luminar doesn’t make self-driving cars like Waymo, which is part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

Instead, it’s a market leader in “lidar”, the technology that makes self-driving vehicles possible.

He sells it to car and truck manufacturers and to those who supply them.

“Lidar,” which is short for light sensing and ranging, is a more accurate means of mapping and measuring distances using rapid pulses of laser light.

In autonomous vehicles, it is the “eye” of the vehicle, allowing an autonomous car to detect the precise distance of objects from it.

It allows the car to take millions of measurements at a time and allows them to navigate more efficiently using a 3D map of the road.

Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor who co-founded PayPal,
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Mr. Russell received a $ 100,000 scholarship from Peter Thiel

Luminar is not the only company playing in the field and, like its rivals, is actively trying to bring the price of Lidar down.

Just under a decade ago, a single Lidar unit cost as much as $ 75,000 (£ 55,000), but in 2017 Waymo said it had cut the price down to a tenth of that.

Since then, other companies have been battling to bring the price down further with Luminar and its competitors, including Velodyne, aiming for less than $ 1,000 (£ 730) per unit.

Unlike some of its competitors, Luminar already has orders to integrate its lidar technology into vehicles made by existing automakers, including Chinese-owned Volvo.

Other deals were signed with the truck manufacturing division of German giant Daimler, and just last week Luminar signed a deal with Mobileye, part of chipmaking giant Intel, to include its Lidar technology. in Mobileye’s integrated autonomous driving package.

Mr Russell, whose stake in Luminar was valued at $ 2.4 billion (£ 1.75 billion) before trading began, said there was “half a trillion of addressable opportunity For the company in terms of sales it could continue.

He added: ‘We have built our book here and expanded to a projected order backlog of $ 1.3bn (£ 950m) estimated from all the deals we’ve made here. ”

Mr Russell insisted that despite the sharp drop in the price of Lidar over the past decade, he was convinced that service would not become a commodity.

Volvo worked with Luminar PIC: Luminar Technologies
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Volvo worked with Luminar PIC: Luminar Technologies

He continued, “For that it’s radically different and it comes down to very high intellectual property.

“We have one of the most insane ditches of any business at this point.

“We pioneered all of these core components and built them completely from scratch – we don’t use standard parts and core parts like people always have.

“And that’s how we are able to solve problems, able to solve technology, performance, security, economy.

“We have the largest portfolio of patents in the industry for these sensing systems, more than Lidar’s top five R&D efforts gathered here.

“We’ve locked down key exclusives and even acquired some of the vendors involved, some of the only people in the world who can do these things. ”

The method by which Luminar came to market has been one of the biggest fools on Wall Street this year.

It merged with a so-called Special Purpose Acquisition Company, or SPAC, called Gores Metropoulos.

Wall Street
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Luminar entered the market on Wall Street through a special purpose acquisition company

PSPCs are similar to the old ‘shell’ companies that were once familiar in the UK.

These are companies that float on the stock exchange without any assets, but raise capital to acquire an existing business, providing a quick and easy way for unlisted companies to go public without having to go through lengthy approval processes. regulatory regulations and endless roadshows for potential investors.

Gores Metropoulos was launched last year by Gores Group, the California-based private equity firm, and Dean Metropoulos, the billionaire investor best known for his bailout of bakery company Hostess Brands.

It announced in August that it would merge with Luminar Technologies and the deal was concluded overnight.

Not everyone is convinced by Lidar technology.

Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk has argued that Lidar is unnecessarily expensive when what it does can be achieved by radar, GPS, mapping technology, and ultrasonic sensors.

He told investors in April of last year: “Lidar is a fool’s race. Anyone who relies on Lidar is doomed. Doomed! Expensive sensors that are unnecessary.

“It’s like having a whole bunch of expensive appendages. Like, an appendix is ​​bad, well now you got a whole bunch of it, that’s ridiculous you’ll see. ”

Elon Musk speaks on stage at Elon Musk answers your questions!  during SXSW at ACL Live on March 11, 2018 in Austin, Texas.
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Elon Musk is skeptical of the technology

Asked today about Mr. Musk’s opinions, Mr. Russell burst into a laugh.

He said: “I think our 50 business partners and the majority of the major automakers we work with would absolutely disagree.

“At the end of the day, cameras are great for assisted driving, but when it comes to range, that’s where you need a high-performance Lidar.

“And we are the only ones who can do it, take it out of R&D, put it into production and do it at highway speed.

“If there is one company out there that has an incentive to have a pure camera solution – they even provided the Tesla systems early on for autonomy – it’s Mobileye.

“And we work directly with them. ”

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