24 May 2022

ANU spinout business lands $40 million navigation deal

| Aiden Rothnie
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Vai Photonics' two founders stand behind a table filled with electronics.

Vai Photonics founders Lyle Roberts and James Spollard have been working together since 2018. Photo: Supplied.

An Australian National University (ANU) spinout business has been bought by one of the nation’s leading navigation firms in a deal worth $40 million.

Vai Photonics, founded in 2021 by two ANU researchers, was recently acquired by Sydney-based robotics and AI company Advanced Navigation.

Founded by Lyle Roberts and James Spollard, Vai Photonics has been working on advanced autonomous navigation systems to be used when GPS is unavailable.

The two have teamed together on photonic navigation research since 2018 when James was completing an undergraduate degree.

The research work based on measurement and levels of light could now have a raft of applications in real-world scenarios.

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Their major leap came in 2019 and 2020 while James was working on his PhD research.

“We had a lot of big breakthroughs in 2019. Then we really put our heads down in 2020 because of the pandemic and got stuck into the research,” Lyle said.

“The most important part of our system is that it works in places without GPS.

“It could be used for something like an autonomous car or the work we’ve been doing recently – navigating things to, from, or around the moon.”

Vai Photonics, consisting seven engineers including Lyle and James, has joined Advanced Navigation’s research and development team in a new office in Canberra.

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“Having a Canberra office is great for us, we get to make a brand new state-of-the-art lab for our work and keep in touch with the ANU and the talented people there,” Lyle said.

“The support we’ve received from the ANU has been fundamental in getting us to where we are now. Their support and encouragement has been undeniable.

“It’s safe to say that without the ANU we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

James said there had been so much going on for everyone involved with the business, their achievement still hadn’t registered.

“I’ve gone from doing a PhD and working on this research to talking to people affiliated with NASA about the possibility of using our research in space or on the moon, and then founding a business and it being acquired,” he said.

“There hasn’t been time to let it all sink in.”

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