The Entrepreneurs Grill is a live stream webcast on Boston.com/hive hosted by Innovation Economy columnist and blogger Scott Kirsner that features a business pitch from a start-up, followed by feedback from a Boston-area investor and questions from viewers. Below is an edited version of last week’s show:
THE PITCH: After being hit on his motorcycle by a distracted driver, Michael Amaru started SmartHUD to bring so-called head-up display technology to cars and improve driving safety. The company makes devices that can project instrument data and other information onto a windshield so drivers are able to keep their eyes on the road and not look away to, say, adjust the radio dial or read an incoming text. His proposal was reviewed by Rudina Sesuri of Fairhaven Capital in Cambridge.
AMARU: About three years ago, I was in an accident and became hyper-aware of the epidemic that distracted driving is. I was driving, I tried to the make the eye contact, the person looked up, didn’t look at me, and continued to look where she was going. And there was no way to stop the accident from happening.
So after that you get a little nervous, and you continue to try to make eye contact with people and you notice they’re all looking down. It’s like, ‘What could be going on here?’ I worked in advertising at the time. I was looking into display solutions for glass storefronts and I came across transparent displays. And something just clicked. I said, ‘Well, if we can get people to have a display up on the windshield, where their heads are up and they’re always looking, then there might be something there.’
Head-up display technology, I believe, is the way that we can combat distracted driving. And it’s only available in high-end luxury vehicles and such like that. But we can make it affordable and accessible to all if we package it in a portable device. And if you wrap that into safety, the head-up display just seems to make sense to me, like that’s the next thing to do.
SESURI: You said that the luxury cars have them, but the more affordable mass market cars do not have them. Is it a component issue? Why, is it too expensive, and the disruption from your company comes from the form of an economic alternative?
AMARU: Well the luxury vehicles that have them, first of all, were pretty much only repeating the same information that was on the dash. So I think that’s one of the reasons that it never really caught on, where everybody wanted it. Projectors used to be big, but now we have pico projectors that have recently come out. That makes it possible to have a small portable unit, which then makes it possible to retrofit any car.
We have an application that would power and work with the head-up display. It has certain features in it to make sure you’re not texting while you’re driving, so that people actually know when you’re plugged into the HUD, you’re not texting and driving. But you still have some access to caller ID, you can use who’s calling you, you can use text to speech to hear that message, you can call that person right back, but you’re not allowed to text. The smartphone has acceleromics in it and GPS, and all that stuff, so we can use those two devices in our application to know when the car is stopped, and we can start allowing more functions at safe speeds or at slow down.
SESURI: What happens with the cars that have the navigation in place, where you just connect your phone through the Bluetooth? Is that screen relatively big? At least in my car, it’s still not safe enough from a interactivity perspective.
AMARU: I believe it’s not safe, even the traditional radio, if you think about it. You change the dials to read the face of the radio. You are looking down and refocusing on something that’s this close. Same thing with the screens. With the HUD and the one that we’re developing now, it has infinite focus. So I could be looking a mile down the road, and on the HUD I’ll have my image, my GPS, my music track or what have you — it stays in focus. My eyes are focused to it, so it’s always in the forefront. Looking down, it’ll always be in focus.
SESURI: Is this something that would ideally be the option of partnerships with a car manufacturer? The lead cycles to make it into a car very very long, or some other sort of partnership with maybe the Best Buys of the world, or electronics. What’s your go-to market thinking here?
AMARU: Our first strategic move was going to build the HUD, so we could talk to rental cars or fleets and sell them the HUD and let them tie it into their own software. From that we wanted to start to build the application, and then start to think about going to consumer market.
SESURI: And the consumer market: direct consumer? Or try to expand through the partnerships or deals with the manufacturers?
AMARU: Partnerships and such. First fleets and then rental cars, to bring awareness to the product, and then we’re going to go from there.
I’ve been watching the cost of pico projectors for awhile. When I first started, the engines were pretty expensive. Now Nikon and Sony are putting them into their HD camcorders. So we can retail it for $199.
SESURI: I don’t have core expertise in the area. This is one where maybe one of my partners who has a lot of experience both in the hardware and the physical materials, it may be an interesting conversation to have for you and him. Where it goes beyond there I have no idea.
AMARU: I would love to talk to him.