Alumnus Gleb Akselrod: ‘The revolutionary nature of the idea’

Gleb Akselrod has always been interested in optics—from his dad’s lab to his startup Lumotive’s flagship product, solid-state optical semiconductors for next-generation LIDAR.

Bill Bell
for Illinois Physics

You have 20 minutes to pitch your startup idea to Bill Gates—yes, that Bill Gates. You want a prototype, right? A proof of concept? Customers lined up? Other backers who already came in during a seed round?

“Every person in a startup has a direct impact, and you can see that impact immediately. 
It’s not for everybody. There’s no place to hide when you can have that kind of influence.”

Gleb Akselrod didn’t have any of those things when he joined Intellectual Ventures (IV) in 2016 as part of an incubator cohort. Run by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold, IV is a private equity company that creates high-impact inventions and spins them out into companies. 

“It was just me in an office with a pad of paper,” Akselrod recalls.

From that office, he developed a small team and a very sharp idea. 

The team wanted to engineer changes in existing materials to create optical semiconductors that can steer light. They would then use those “metamaterials” to build LIDAR, the laser range-finding equipment that is used in everything from satellites, to precision agricultural mapping technologies, to robots that can “see.” By the time he pitched to Gates in 2017, there was “still very little to show. A PowerPoint and nothing working,” according to Akselrod. “But that’s what venture capital is.”

“[Gates] saw the revolutionary nature of the idea. We have a shared vision for what it can do and a shared passion to change the world and make some money doing it,” Akselrod says.

That idea is now Lumotive, where Akselrod is CTO. The Seattle-based company is doing just what it set out to do, building light-control metasurface beam-steering chips for what they call “LIDAR 2.0”—smaller, cheaper, and more reliable than traditional LIDAR. In 2022, EE Times named Lumotive one of its “Emerging Startups to Watch.” Its technology won a pair of Innovation Awards at CES, the annual consumer electronics show, where the team demonstrated a car headlight having integrated LIDAR. 

Samsung’s venture capital arm provided an additional funding round to the company in July 2022. 

LIDAR is particularly important in our current technological moment—on the cusp of autonomous technologies like self-driving cars or delivery drones.

“The world is going to be full of autonomous things very soon,” Akselrod affirms. “These all need a way to interact with the world. That means sensors, and that means LIDAR. But LIDAR is heavy, expensive, and handmade right now,” Akselrod notes.

Akselrod compares Lumotive’s new LIDAR technology to the development of the camera. Thirty years ago, a camera was full of mechanical gears,  lenses, mirrors. It was so big you had to carry it on a strap around your neck, and a good one cost hundreds of dollars. Today, your cellphone might have four cameras, they all fit in a tiny bit of real estate, and they’re only one part of a device that costs hundreds of dollars. And your phone takes much better pictures. 

The same goes for LIDAR. What used to be bulky, expensive, and mechanical has shrunk and can be produced fast and cheap—steering light using Lumotive’s metamaterials. The same technology may someday be used in optical computing and 6G communications.

Akselrod worked in optics even while an undergrad at UIUC, with Illinois Physics Professor Paul Kwiat and with Illinois Electrical & Computer Engineering Professor Greg Timp, who is now at Notre Dame University. With Timp, he explored using lasers to manipulate cells and developed new laser techniques to study how cells work. Before graduation, his work on the laser-guided assembly of living bacterial arrays made the cover of Biophysical Journal.

“I was always interested in fundamentals, but not in fundamentals for fundamentals’ sake. Fundamentals for the sake of applying them to something. So the most impactful thing was all that research, more than the classes. I was always self-directed, trying to create something new,” says Akselrod, who went on to earn a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then did postdoctoral work at Duke University, before making the choice to pursue innovative research in industry.

Akselrod’s experience in the field goes back even further than his undergrad years. At 15, Akselrod took a summer job with his father. The family business? The design and manufacture of radiation sensors that are used by X-ray technicians or people who work in nuclear power plants, to ensure that they are not being unduly exposed. A visiting professor at Oklahoma State University, Akselrod’s dad developed a new technology in which crystals absorb radiation and a laser is shined on them to detect whether the crystals have changed in response to that radiation. The company was purchased about 20 years ago by Landauer, a leader in radiation safety and nuclear medicine.

Akselrod says he has been focused on optics and the thrill of generating ideas ever since. 

“I had no idea what research meant at the time, but I fell in love with it—this unstructured space where I get to go and do my own thing and run with it.” 

That perspective has served him well in the startup world. 

“It makes you comfortable with making sense of chaos,” he notes. “Every person in a startup has a direct impact, and you can see that impact immediately. It’s not for everybody. There’s no place to hide when you can have that kind of influence.”

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This story was published December 15, 2022.