TULA Auto, the Portuguese startup and offshoot of TULA Innovation and Electronics which has just moved into the GTEC Lab, is already making great waves with ‘Move” – its autonomous last-mile transport vehicles. (To you and me that means self-driving vehicles which transport people in closed environments, such as airports, tourist resorts, university campuses and hospitals.) Being silent, solar-powered, zero-emission, and able to stop wherever the passenger needs to, you can understand why.
We sat down with founder and CEO, Jorge Saraiva, to hear the story behind TULA Auto and why being in the GTEC Lab will help him take this latest venture to the next level.
To be selected for the GTEC Lab, startups must be working on a technology-driven idea with global potential, in any technology-related industry. Applications for the Lab are open throughout the year. For information on our 14 other Lab startups are up to, take a peek here.
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
“I started out as and still am an engineer. In the early nineties, I completed a Science and Maths degree at the University of Coimbra, Portugal’s oldest university. Teaching at the university is my family’s profession: my father taught Political Science, my mother Biology, my sister now teaches maths. In Portugal, if you work at the university you want your sons to work there too. So that’s where I began my career – at Coimbra researching computer graphics. Being a researcher suited me but not in that environment.
That’s why I quit my PhD and went to work for Portugal’s biggest company – the Mello Group – first focusing on mathematics forecasting models for planning production and then moving into management. After eight years there, I couldn’t have asked for more in terms of money and board recognition – I was in a great position.”
How did you go from corporate animal to setting up your own business?
“The funny part of my story comes now. I quit. Everyone said I was crazy, that I should stay, but I knew I wanted to start my own company. I founded my first company in 2002, making mobile applications, which at the time was very cutting edge. I still own that company, but someone else runs it.
Alongside, I founded a second company, focusing on electronics for pipelines in the oil and gas industry. When I sold it in 2009, it was the world leader in that field, with 150 employees and EUR 12 million turnover. But it became too much managing and not enough creating.”
That’s where TULA came in?
“First came two years of not doing much, aside from helping on social projects. Then in 2011, I founded TULA Innovation and Electronics – with the aim, this time, of creating a world-leading company in the telecommunications sector.
I love making things happen that can help people, that solve big problems. Not for the money but to hit objectives. Engineering can be a beautiful thing if it has a soul; that’s why TULA has the market recognition it has today.”
How did TULA get to be TULA Auto?
In 2013, the University of Coimbra approached me to pick up a research project, started by one of my professors and with which I’d been involved 15 years earlier, on autonomous cars. I looked at the project and thought ‘I can do that, I can make it work as a business’.
From there, I set about understanding what I needed to make it happen. The focus at the university had been scientific research, now we needed something we could bring to market. So my first step was to hire a market expert (in fact, someone working at BMW on racing cars). Then I picked the first client – the Gwatt Center tourist resort in Switzerland.
Now we have eight people working on the project. We have two “Moves” in Rovisco Pais Hospital in Portugal and others coming to the Gwatt Center. Right now we’re building a “Movebus” (a larger vehicle designed for a city environment) for Qatar and a standard “Move” for the University of Coimbra, both set to be operational in 2016. That’s how TULA Auto has grown out of TULA.”
So why GTEC?
“Let’s be honest, Portugal is not recognised in the automobile industry. Make cars in Portugal and they won’t be respected. And, Southern Europe doesn’t have the money for big projects on this scale. Taking the project to Germany just made sense. Management and sales will be here, production will stay in Portugal for now – or elsewhere if it makes more sense. Not in China: I never want to produce anything in a country with so little respect for human rights.
Coincidentally, I was read about GTEC in a Forbes article whilst on a plane. As platform, I thought it would give me a great route to Germany and specifically to RWE [one of GTEC’s six founding partners]. I’m already talking to them about potential collaboration.”
“I believe the best funding for businesses is not from loans but from real clients – by that I mean a business should start selling to people who understand the value of the product, generating real revenue to fund growth. That has always been my approach.”
“2016 is all about sales.”
Thanks, Jorge. We’re delighted to have TULA in the GTEC Lab. Check out TULA’s video: