Helm.ai snags $31M to scale its ‘unsupervised’ autonomous driving software

A few bright spots remained in the autonomous vehicle industry even amid macroeconomic headwinds that nearly shut off the spigot of venture capital and led to further consolidation.

Helm.ai, a startup developing software designed for advanced driver assistance systems, autonomous driving and robotics, is one of them.

The Menlo Park, California-based startup recently raised $31 million in a Series C round led by the Freeman Group, just one year after it snagged $26 million in venture funding. This latest round, which included ACVC Partners, Amplo and strategic investors Honda Motor Co., Goodyear Ventures and Sungwoo Hitech, has pushed Helm.ai’s valuation to $431 million.

Brandon Freeman, founder of the Freeman Group, is joining the Helm.ai board of directors as part of this financing. The company has raised $78 million, to date.

Like so many other autonomous vehicle startups, Helm.ai launched to push the technology forward with a new approach. Instead of the sensors or compute, Helm.ai co-founders Tudor Achim and Vlad Voroninski took aim at the software.

Helm.ai developed software that can understand sensor data as well as a human — a goal not unlike others in the field. Its approach is the noteworthy part. Autonomous vehicle developers often rely on a combination of simulation and on-road testing, along with reams of datasets that have been annotated by humans, to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.

Helm.ai says it has developed software that can skip those steps, which expedites the timeline and reduces costs; that lower cost also makes it particularly useful for advanced driver assistance systems. The six-year-old startup uses an unsupervised learning approach to develop software that can train neural networks without the need for large-scale fleet data, simulation or annotation. The software is also agnostic to whatever compute and sensors are used in the vehicle, allowing Helm.ai to pitch to a diverse set of customers.

Helm.ai sells its software to various OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers in the automotive industry to help them “achieve software differentiation with high-end ADAS and L4 solutions,” according to Voroninski.

“Strategically, we’ve known that our go-to-market strategy is going to be focused on high-end ADAS or for several years now; our strategy has not changed at all as a function of the recent events,” he said, referring to consolidation in the AV industry. “I’ve been basically predicting for a number of years now that the vast majority of autonomous driving companies will fail to make it to market due to outdated technological approaches and subpar business models. So it has not been a surprise to me by any means. The autonomous driving market generally has not been efficient in the last few years due to all the misplaced hype.”

Helm.ai has attracted a number of customers, although Voroninski said he couldn’t name the other customers due to non-disclosure agreements. Helm.ai has previously disclosed that Honda is a customer. The mathematician and former chief scientist at cybersecurity machine learning startup Sift Security did say he has spent the last two years focused on commercializing the technology and securing partnerships.

The recent funding will be used to add more employees to the 50-person workforce, R&D and building those commercial partnerships, he said.