Driving Transformation With Software and AI: Bilal Zuberi and Qasar Younis

Driving Transformation With Software and AI:

Bilal Zuberi and Qasar Younis

March 14, 2024

After Applied Intuition’s Series E announcement, investor co-lead Bilal Zuberi sat down with Applied Intuition CEO Qasar Younis to ask questions about our company’s ambitious mission and vision for the future. The conversation delved into the strategies driving Applied Intuition’s growth, our unique company culture that fosters innovation, and the global scale of our operations.

“It was clear from our discussion that Applied Intuition is not just reshaping the automotive industry — it’s redefining what’s possible,” said Bilal Zuberi, General Partner at Lux Capital.

Bilal: “Why did you choose to build a company in the automotive sector?”

Qasar: “Let me offer a couple of “whys.” First, “Why automotive?” Because it’s a sector that represents one of the largest shares of major economies around the world. We’re witnessing industry-wide technological transformations that present immense opportunities. Business opportunities of course, but also the opportunity to create exciting technology that has an impact on, potentially, almost everyone in the world. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

My second why would be “Why us?” We have a founding team with a special blend of Silicon Valley’s expertise in software and AI and Detroit’s automotive expertise. Both are necessary to succeed in this space. I’m not sure there’s another leadership team like us in the industry — and I think our customers would agree with that. Hiring people that have industry experience is one thing but having those core skills in the founders has helped us make a lot of complex, non-obvious decisions correctly. That means everything from our work at OEMs and suppliers, software giants in the bay area and venture capital. I think all that has helped…”

Bilal Zuberi, General Partner at Lux Capital, and Qasar Younis, Co-Founder and CEO of Applied Intuition

Bilal: “What are some of the biggest technology trends in the automotive sector that OEMs are focused on?”

Qasar: “Some trends have to do with products being created and some trends with how we create them. On the former, I see the transition to electric vehicles and achieving higher levels of autonomy as major among the product trends.

As to the how, that means more of the car (and other vehicles from commercial trucks to tanks) becoming software and AI products, shorter product development and launch cycles and fundamentally, new in-vehicle consumer experiences. These trends are not just reshaping the industry but also opening new avenues for new technology and growth. Everything from tractors to tanks are truly becoming smart.”

Bilal: “Why focus on helping automakers disrupt themselves instead of competing with them?”

Qasar: “The business of producing cars and trucks at scale is incredibly complex, and OEMs have decades and sometimes a hundred plus years of experience. Even a company like Tesla that has been incredibly successful is still only a couple percent of the market — so there’s a ton of opportunity. Now I think if we can become the Tesla of suppliers — bringing the best software and AI technology in the world to customers through our OEM partners, well, I think VC’s call that a ‘win-win’!”

Bilal: “Applied Intuition now has customers and offices across the globe. What’s been the most interesting aspect of this growth?”

Qasar: “Expanding our presence globally has allowed us to support our customers wherever they are, fostering a strong connection to our roots in Silicon Valley while maintaining a high talent bar globally. It’s fascinating to see our team navigate different languages and cultures while adhering to a unified work style and ethics.”

Bilal: “Can you share more about the industries you serve and some of your customers?”

Qasar: “Taking the last part of your question first, we have as customers 18 of the Top 20 automakers in the world. Torc, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen Group are a few of them, and we point to those names with a lot of pride. We aren’t able to share all our customers’ names, but I’m certain most people would be familiar with them. In this round, we also announced Porsche joining our list of investors which we’re very proud of. As to the industries we serve, you can find us in autonomous vehicles, construction, agriculture, and defense. Essentially anywhere we can help machines move safely and with more intelligence, you will see us. Automotive alone is 3% of the global GDP, which is massive, but once you include defense, commercial trucking, construction, mining and agriculture — the markets are unfathomably large and impactful. These industries touch every single aspect of your life on this planet and we are excited to move these forward. I think if we do this right, Applied Intuition can be much bigger than it is even now.”

Bilal: “You mentioned the military. Applied Intuition has a major customer in the U.S. Department of Defense, helping it deploy software-defined systems around the globe. What is the motivation when you already have a very successful commercial business?”

Qasar: “Yes, beyond the automotive sector, we’ve made significant strides in defense. The work Applied Intuition Defense is doing with the Robotic Combat Vehicle, for example, is changing how the Department of Defense develops critical capabilities. Our motivation is simple–peace through strength. We also believe in enabling our military and government to protect our citizens and our interests — it’s personally important to me as an immigrant to the US, and I believe, an obligation as someone who benefited from what our society has to offer. Our only hope for peace is for the United States and its allies to maintain the most capable and effective military alliance in the world. Maintaining that edge requires the most sophisticated software and AI-defined capabilities. This means the DoD, Silicon Valley, and venture capitalists must work together to enable that.”

Bilal: “Applied Intuition is known for its unique culture in Silicon Valley. What makes it so special?”

Qasar: “We put great stock in the value of culture. When I was an engineer early in my career I rolled my eyes at “culture” and “values” in the corporate context. The more I worked though, the more I realized if we’re not speaking a common language, the company will work much less efficiently. Everyone who works at Applied Intuition has taken the culture mantra as a core responsibility of their daily routine. The first thing new employees learn about Applied Intuition is our set of core values. A lot of companies talk about their cultures, but I think what makes ours special is that we actually live by those values.

Let me speak to our Number 1 value, “Speed above all things.” Think about the industry we serve, automotive. We’re talking about a domain that began in the late 19th century by trying to replace horses, and ramped significantly in the 20th century. Then only a few decades ago we saw the beginnings of research into autonomous vehicles. And now we are on the brink of self-driving cars becoming mainstream. Think of that–from horses to AVs in barely more than a century. In the context of human achievement that span of time is nothing! How could we NOT value speed? Moving at less than full velocity is simply not an option.

Through these values, the core of our organizational DNA is a focus on the pursuit of perfection. As we wrote in our Series E announcement, to queue off of Bill Walsh, “The valuation takes care of itself.” Doing the day-to-day things right is actually much harder than maybe anything else we do.

Also it’s about what we don’t do. We don’t have a lot of the trappings of the corporate world–no lofty titles or endless twitter threads about how great we are.

Another example: I know that after the pandemic, companies tried different approaches to where people work–some went fully to working remotely, some let employees adopt a hybrid approach, etc. For us it was a simple choice, we’re 5 days in-office to execute with speed. We’ve been quite intentional about what we are and what we’re not. Culture is just a way to describe those decisions.”

Bilal: “How do you balance your time between recruiting, product development, customer engagement, and fundraising?”

Qasar: “Fundraising takes up virtually none of our leadership’s time, thanks to our consistent performance and careful curation of the investors on our cap table. I think at this point, the true luxury we have is we get to work with who we want. And since we have some of the best investors on the planet, they know something simple: investors can only do so much and they let us focus. Focus on things like product development, customer engagement, and building a strong team. The bread and butter. And as I said, the valuation takes care of itself.”

Bilal: “Is there anyone in the business world you admire greatly? How have they influenced Applied Intuition?”

Qasar: “Cliche answers, but Warren Buffett of Berkshire and Sam Walton immediately come to mind. Relentless execution over long periods of time. It’s one thing to be good for a few years, it’s another ball game to be good for a few decades. I love Silicon Valley, and by pure dollars and cents it has been one of the key driving forces of the American economy for a couple of decades now. But what I don’t love about the valley is the hype cycles that come and go. At this point, can I remind the readers we’re using this money on Generative AI? I say that tongue in cheek. If it’s not obvious, I also admire people who don’t take themselves too seriously. Do your job well, but don’t be too serious about it.

I also take inspiration from books, and I maintain a list of those that have made a particular impact. Way too many to list here, but a couple are Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared M. Diamond, and On Writing by Stephen King. The latter might be a surprise in a business discussion, but it resonates because of how King describes the path to excellence as depending on dogged hard work, discipline, persistence, a desire to master the skill, and luck. Guns, Germs, and Steel speaks to questions like, “why are some countries rich and others poor?” I could go on and on about books.”

Bilal: “Sounds like exciting times at Applied Intuition. What do you look forward to next? What excites you?”

Qasar: “Doing more and better of what we’ve been doing. I want to maintain the team and focus that has brought us this far.

Between RPOs and money in the bank, we have over $1B to invest into our growth — while being cash flow positive. So, I’m most excited about really taking on the next set of technical challenges that these types of resources allow us to tackle.

I strongly believe our mission to accelerate the world’s adoption of safe and intelligent machines is an inspiring one. And if we do our work correctly we will save lives–who wouldn’t be excited to be part of that?”