HOLLAND — An investment from one of the world’s largest suppliers positions AlSentis LLC to penetrate the automotive market far further with its touch-control technology.
Faurecia Ventures, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based investment arm of Faurecia SA, invested in Holland-based AlSentis as part of a broader strategy to access emerging technologies for interior controls in a new generation of connected and smart vehicles.
As new technologies are embedded into vehicle designs, AlSentis can provide Faurecia the human-machine interfaces, or HMIs, for functions such as seat and climate controls in the auto interior systems Faurecia develops.
Faurecia is major supplier of automotive seating and full vehicle interiors that “owns as much or more real estate inside an automobile than any other customer on the planet,” said AlSentis CEO Justin Teitt.
“When we talk about creating human-machine interfaces and intelligence in the cockpit of the future, (the Faurecia investment) positions us really well to be an enabler of smart surfaces and human controls inside an automobile,” Teitt told MiBiz. “We have a very, very large and very motivated and broad customer/partner that can get us in front of OEMs everywhere.
“Our hope is that it gives them a competitive advantage on delivering interfaces that delight customers, and it gives us a channel partner that can really pay attention to the details and help us navigate the complexities of a vertical like automotive.”
AlSentis first entered the automotive market in 2013 with touch controls embedded in rearview mirrors for the Chevrolet Camaro and Corvette. The company’s HMI technology is also used by customers in other industries, such as recreational vehicles, appliances and industrial controls.
The fundamental difference to other HMI technologies of today is that AlSentis “can do really high-performance controls through virtually any non-conductive surface,” from to fabrics and leathers, to glass and metals, and fiberglass and wood.
The AlSentis technology “really fits well with somebody like Faurecia. They’re doing the high-end finishes inside of a car, and they want smart intelligent surfaces inside of the car,” Teitt said.
“Now you envision a future where people can interface with the world around them through more beautiful materials, through more beautiful product designs, and have them work in virtually any environment,” he said. “So this helps us penetrate the automotive market. It gives us a really sound partner that aligns with our long-term strategic direction, which is enabling more beautiful products at work everywhere.”
Both Teitt and Rob Huber, vice president of innovation and ventures for Faurecia Ventures, declined to discuss terms of the investment.
AlSentis was founded by Dave Caldwell, who once worked in R&D at General Motors and later worked on thin films for the former Donnelly Corp. in Holland that developed touch technology for vehicles in the 1980s. Caldwell serves as chief technology officer at AlSentis.
The company’s products are produced under a contract with Microchip Technology Inc. in Chandler, Ariz.
Start Garden, now Wakestream Ventures, provided early seed capital for AlSentis, and Betsy DeVos listed the company as one of her many business holdings in a disclosure form filed early this year with the Office of Government Ethics when she became education secretary. DeVos listed her holding in AlSentis at between $1 million and $5 million.
Faurecia’s investment in AlSentis resulted from the two connecting through their involvement in the Seamless business accelerator in downtown Grand Rapids. Seamless involves a consortium of West Michigan corporations collaborating with startups developing new technologies. Faurecia partners in Seamless with Amway, Steelcase Inc., Meijer, Spectrum Health, Priority Health, and Wakestream Ventures, a venture capital fund.
At Seamless, Faurecia worked with AlSentis on a proof of concept and gained an understanding of the company’s capabilities and intellectual property, said Huber of Faurecia Ventures.
Faurecia, which has its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, came to view the AlSentis developed as “an important enabling technology for the future” that fits with a vision to use smart surfaces in vehicle interiors and seating, Huber said. AlSentis’ innovation “ultimately can be a key technology that delivers a new overall HMI user experience in the changing world of mobility over time,” Huber said.
“As you think about that as our domain, smart surfaces and touch become a big opportunity for us long term. Their technology allows for very robust touch technologies and unique contour shapes that allow for tremendous design freedom that we can offer to our customers,” he said. “We have invested in a few other companies related to smart surfaces, and this is another part of the portfolio that really starts to make that a reality for Faurecia.”
Faurecia believes HMI technology will continue to evolve for automotive uses. The company has a “global scouting network” that works to identify startups working on promising technologies for use in vehicle interiors and seating, Huber said.
“As things go from the driven vehicle of today toward the connected vehicle and ultimately more toward autonomous, we see that opportunity to create new opportunities for various ways for interacting with occupant and passengers in the vehicle,” Huber said.