Alex Rodrigues always wanted to be an inventor. Growing up in Waterloo, Canada, he spent his childhood scorching much older opponents in robotics competitions before engineering a self-driving golf cart at 19. While professors and the media encouraged him to apply his talent to self-driving cars, after conversations with trucking companies, Rodrigues set his sights on the less sexy relative: 18-wheelers.
His autonomous trucking software company, Embark, went public via SPAC merger with Northern Genesis Acquisition Corp. II on November 11 at a $5 billion valuation, making the 26-year-old inventor worth an estimated $500 million, and the youngest CEO of a publicly traded company.
“The SPAC is just a means to the end,” says Rodrigues. “The end is when you go to bed and there’s no one in the truck, and it’s driving to hundreds of destinations in the U.S. You wake up, and it’s still driving.”
To have achieved extraordinary feats before 30, Alex Rodrigues had an equally extraordinary childhood. As Rodrigues’ father invented the advertising units on grocery checkout separators, he skipped bedtime stories with young Alex. Instead, he and his young son crafted bedtime business plans—outlining marketing, operation and technical strategies together.
Rodrigues launched Embark after meeting fellow University of Waterloo mechatronics engineer Brandon Moak (with whom he built the self-driving golf cart). After completing this feat, they raised $2 million to pioneer self-driving trucks, won Thiel Fellowships, dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco. In 2019, the duo earned a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list with just $47 million in funding (as compared to their current $117 in pre-IPO funding).
Today, Rodrigues remains an atypical 26-year-old $500 millionaire CEO. Rather than spend money on an Instagram-perfect mansion, art collection and sportscars, Rodrigues lives with two roommates, decorates his bedroom with Legos and does not own a car (he gets around via bike). He does not have Instagram. He works from an Amazon folding table, and says the nicest things he owns are a Peloton purchased to bolster focus and a leather jacket investor Sequoia gifted him after the company’s series B. “I’m focused on building Embark,” he says. “I never saw anything wrong with the way I was living my life when we were a five-person startup, and so I haven’t really changed it all that much.”
Embark’s business model has not changed much from its inception either; it has always been largely a SaaS company. It automates trucking by embedding its operating system into Peterbilt trucks (among others) and then allowing companies including Anhaueser Busch, DHL and HP to automate long haul trucking around the U.S. on a per-mile subscription basis. The company then charges its clients for autonomous driving on a per-mile subscription, making money on both this and sales of its operating system.
Rodrigues says Embark, which he believes to be the oldest autonomous trucking company, has at least doubled its funding and headcount annually since 2016. With the IPO, it plans to scale up operations with a goal of fulfilling over 14,200 reservations for Embark-enabled trucks by 2024. Rodrigues also announced a partnership with Luminar—an Under 30-founded lidar tech company—to help power these new vehicles.
In theory, truckers today can stay home with their families while an Embark-enabled vehicle travels between 100 transfer stations as far as 300 miles apart, only getting behind wheels to deliver shipments to their final destination via short-haul trucks that are better suited to navigating urban unpredictability. But until legislators work out regulations for robo 18-wheelers within and across state lines, autonomous trucks will be required to have safety drivers.
Truckers tired of cross-country treks aren’t the company’s only fans: Climate proponents like that its vehicles are 10% more fuel efficient than standard trucks, and economists see the work Embark is doing as one solution to the 80,000-person truck driver shortage, and resulting inflation and delivery delays.
Embark isn’t the only autonomous vehicle company having a moment: TuSimple, Walmart-backed Gatik, Alphabet-owned Waymo and Amazon-backed Aurora are also racing to carve out meaningful stakes in what seems to be the future of shipping. Trucking is an $800 billion industry in the U.S. and a $4 trillion market globally and stands to only grow from the rise of autonomous vehicles and major investors. Like Embark, some of these relatively new startups are going public. TuSimple, whose business model is similar to Embark, went public via SPAC merger in April, has maintained a relatively consistent stock price; Aurora went public last week.
For SPAC investor Northern Genesis, the competition is an opportunity, rather than a threat. “It reaffirms my belief in the inevitability of this outcome,” says Ian Robertson, Northern Genesis’ CEO. “I don’t think this is a winner-takes-all marketplace. I do think Embark’s tech is equal or more advanced than others in the space, and they’ve enjoyed the longest run at this.”