Emilio Frazolli was one of the founders of nuTonomy, a startup leading the transition towards autonomous vehicles. Formerly professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, he is now professor at the ETH in Zurich and chief scientist of Motional. He recently invested in Unistellar through its equity crowdfunding campaign.
As a founder of NuTonomy, one of the startups leading the transition towards autonomous vehicles, what are your thoughts on digital telescopes and how they disrupt the traditional amateur astronomy market ?
Nowadays, too many people think of themselves as “serial entrepreneurs” and want to start the next big tech startup. Mostly you see people rehashing others’ ideas in hopes of making a quick buck. It is much rarer to see founders who are passionate about a genuinely new idea, believe in its market potential, and have a clear vision on how to bring it to fruition.
When I started nuTonomy with a colleague at MIT, I was not thinking primarily about financial gains (which I knew would be even more elusive than those nebulae). My main motivation was to make my vision for the future of mobility a reality, because I saw it as a way to improve the lives of urban dwellers worldwide. In Laurent and Arnaud, the founders of Unistellar and inventors of the eVscope, I see the same passion and desire to make space and astronomy much more accessible to a vast audience.
Could you give us your perspective on equity crowdfunding, how meaningful do you think it is?
One of the unfortunate realities of traditional models of finance and venture capital is that access to some of the most rewarding forms of investments are reserved to deep-pocketed individuals and institutions. Equity crowdfunding is a way to democratize investment into private equity, which is otherwise inaccessible to most people. On the other hand, it is also a risky and illiquid form of investment, so people should only invest what they would be comfortable losing.
Unistellar is a profitable company after nine months of commercialization, how do you value this metric as an investor ?
One of the recommendations I make to potential startup founders is to be the harshest critics of themselves and their idea. The Unistellar founders did not stop at the idea for the eVscope, they thought carefully about execution and market potential. Their efforts are being rewarded by the market — this shows not only that they had the right intuition, but also that the eVscope is a great product that can have a significant impact on the amateur astronomy market.
What kind of space lover are you ?
I have been fascinated by space since I was a young child. I bought my first telescope as a teenager, in 1986, just in time to observe Halley’s comet latest approach. I spent numerous long and cold nights in my backyard, trying to observe elusive objects like nebulae and far galaxies—but it was frustrating to realize that, instead of the colorful pictures I could see in the astronomy books, I would only be able to detect a faint outline, if lucky.
Now my children are getting to an age when they can start appreciating astronomy. The Unistellar eVscope is a fantastic device that allows me to show them those same objects I was chasing, but much more clearly, and without all the work and preparation that were required in the old days. In today’s world, in which one must compete with smartphones and tablets to get a child’s attention, this can make a huge difference—and I hope that the eVscope will be just the first step in a lifelong interest in space and astronomy.