Co-founder and chief engineer, Gatik
Big break: Starting a self-driving truck company at a time competitors focused on robotaxis
Apeksha Kumavat's first foray into robotics involved smashing brick walls, dodging bullets and collecting points. Those were all components of a game inspired by Dangerous Dave that she created as a teenager. Her interests quickly grew. Creating predictive agents for games morphed into mastering broader aspects of deep learning and artificial intelligence.
"That was essentially my whole entry," she said.
By the time she pursued a master's degree at Purdue University, her interest had turned into expertise in robotics for all sorts of applications. It was at Purdue where Kumavat met Arjun Narang, who became a fellow co-founder of self-driving truck startup Gatik.
Kumavat is the company's chief engineer, a position from which she launched the trucking industry's first autonomous vehicles without human safety drivers onto public roads in August 2021. The milestone occurred in Bentonville, Ark., where Gatik operates a key partnership with retail giant Walmart.
Gatik has differentiated itself from competitors in a crowded autonomous truck sector by eschewing interstate operations and focusing on "middle mile" road segments that connect distribution hubs with retail stores. By narrowing the focus to repeatable routes, Kumavat says the neural networks can be simplified and tailored, each handling bite-sized segments of the trips.
That is the basis of Gatik's technical approach. The company is accelerating its commercial efforts amid an e-commerce boom that has shifted the supply chain toward fulfillment centers near consumers. The trend favors Gatik's business model.
"The traditional models of deliveries were once every week or two, and now instead, delivery replenishment is more frequent, maybe even multiple times a day," Kumavat said. "These were being served by huge semis, and what we are seeing now is that we can increase our frequency along these routes and use our 26-foot box trucks."
In June, Gatik struck a multiyear partnership with Georgia Pacific and logistics company KBX to deliver goods among 34 Sam's Club locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas.
That's the sort of impact Kumavat envisioned making when she decided to plunge into another startup. In 2016 and 2017, she had a brief stint at Ford Motor Co., where she worked as computer vision lead on autonomous vehicle systems.
But she left to join Narang at a startup, OTSAW, that made indoor security and disinfectant robots. There, she was the machine learning software lead. Then the two quit to co-found Gatik along with Narang's brother, Gautam, in November 2017.
"Entrepreneurship is something that I've always been excited about," she said. "It's about using state-of-the-art technology as it is right now in the near term and realistically saying what we can deliver to customers."
— Pete Bigelow