SHANGHAI — Augmented-reality startup WayRay has been trying to perfect a holographic head-up display for cars since 2012, and it still doesn't have a single one for sale.
But the Switzerland high-tech hopeful has a shot at changing all that, thanks to a sudden influx of interest from automakers worldwide. Manufacturers are flooding WayRay with cash to back development of the special windshield film that enables its detailed digital pop-ups.
Welcome to the new world of auto industry venture funds.
In hopes of seeding breakthrough technologies that they just don't have the time or people to create in-house, old-school carmakers and traditional suppliers from Detroit to Munich to Tokyo have been ladling out hundreds of millions of dollars to high-tech startups to get a leg up on autonomous driving, connected cars and electrified vehicles.
The money race targets almost any industry outsider, no matter how small or obscure, that might be a conduit to the next big solution. It is pitting established players against each other, armed with venture funds to buy up partners before rivals do. And it also smacks of a new gold rush — carrying risks for investors betting on what, in many cases, are still unproven startups.
WayRay became an industry darling partly through its participation in several such venture programs, including the Xcelerator program that Honda runs and Plug and Play Japan, which connected WayRay to Nissan Motor Co. WayRay's other partners include Porsche, Chinese auto giant SAIC Motor Corp. and China's Internet retailer Alibaba, to name a few, says Andrei Shelomentsev, WayRay's vice president of strategic partnerships.
Some 20 auto companies are now collaborating with WayRay, and for good reason, Shelomentsev said.
"On one hand, car manufacturers are scared by the threat of technology companies," Shelomentsev said here last month at CES Asia, where WayRay was exhibiting inside the Honda booth. "On the other hand, they want innovation but are too big and bureaucratic to innovate themselves. It's a trend happening all over the world."