Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

By fundamentally rethinking how sensors capture and process light, a Boston-based startup with UW-Madison roots looks to revolutionize how machines perceive the world around us.

An autonomous vehicle cruising in the night. Darkness and fog. An obstacle around the corner undetectable to human eyes…

The scenario strikes a chord because it evokes a familiar danger and the limitations of human perception. It also illustrates one of countless technical challenges and opportunities confronting the competitive realm of computer vision.

Computer vision, as defined by IBM, is a field of artificial intelligence (AI) that enables computers and systems to derive meaningful information from digital images, videos and other visual inputs — and take action.

It all starts with light.

Sebastian Bauer, CEO of startup Ubicept, believes his company is on track to commercialize the best answer in the field.

Founded in 2021, Ubicept couples advanced algorithms with next-generation sensors to capture and process light in a fundamentally unique way. A way that builds upon years of computational imaging research pioneered at UW-Madison.

Or as Bauer describes it, “We are the brains to new types of eyes.”

Light Tells a Story

For Bauer, the journey to the helm of a buzzy young startup began as a postdoc in the lab of Andreas Velten, a Professor of Biostatistics and Medical Informatics at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Velten’s group was pushing the limits of non-line-of-sight imaging. In other words, using sensors to “see” around corners by bouncing light off a surface and reconstructing an image based on the “echoes” that come back. All in the blink of a metaphorical eye.

Their findings were compelling. So were the potential real-world applications, from disaster relief and national defense to critical safety systems in future vehicles.

“This technology has tremendous safety implications that positively impact people every day,” says WARF Licensing Manager Michael Carey. “The technology’s ability to see around corners and in low light, in difficult-to-see situations is outstanding. This will positively impact children getting off busses in busy streets or garbage loaders managing blind spots. Lives will be saved by use of this technology.”

Bauer, always curious about entrepreneurship, was inspired by the idea of moving innovations beyond the walls of the university and into the hands of consumers.

WARF Accelerator is an excellent partner to academic entrepreneurs and proved to be one in this case as well. The program provided financial and mentoring support for Bauer as a postdoctoral researcher to continue to further the technology with an eye toward commercialization via a startup. With the support he was able to develop an early proof-of-concept prototype that enabled early customer discovery, acquisition and testing. These activities became crucial for fundraising efforts as the startup was formalized.

The Ubicept team started fundraising last year and is currently interfacing with top companies in several sectors. Velten remains an advising founder along with Associate Professor Mohit Gupta (Computer Sciences) whose innovations in single-photon imaging are world renowned. Single-photon sensors can capture individual photons of light with extremely high sensitivity and time resolution, making them ideal candidates for state-of-the-art 3-D cameras.

Bauer says that, while challenging, the process of building a tech startup has accomplished precisely what it should – confirming many assumptions while invalidating others along the way. It’s all part of the “fascinating journey.”

Looking back, Bauer credits the “generous spirit” of WARF-supported programs like Discovery to Product (D2P) and gBETA for nurturing a sense of community during the earliest – and often loneliest – stages of company exploration.

The dividends of such support are hard to quantify, he says. “But it is extremely valuable. It helps to be part of an ecosystem with like-minded peers and mentors, where someone really takes the time to help.”

The idea of encouraging more entrepreneurs resonates with Bauer. And he has a message for the next generation of engineers and computer scientists who, like him, yearn to take university innovations to the next level of development.

“Just try it.”