Battle of the Titans?

In response to my latest blog post, Colin Barnden, Lead Analyst at Semicast Research, wrote to me explaining why he thinks Fovio is of strategic importance to both Apple and Alphabet. Indeed, his analysis reinforces my feeling that the two may soon battle it out to acquire Seeing Machines — regardless of any initial low-ball bid in the 25p-30p range from another party that kicks off a bidding war. 

I’ve reproduced his comments in full below so you get the benefit of his insights:

Colin Barnden

“Do you hear the thud? That’s the sound of the penny dropping in Silicon Valley that autonomous driving is not easy peasy after all. Witness no robo taxi development stories since March, after the Uber crash. As you report today, witness also the speed of conventional OEMs starting to adopt camera-based DMS. This is a technology which I have repeatedly been told by people at Silicon Valley based tech companies is “at best an interim solution and at worst already obsolete”. Elon might think something like that, but a steady stream of auto OEMs seem to want to work with Seeing Machines anyhow. My view is that every auto OEM will have announced their plans for camera-based DMS by the end of this year, with most implementing the technology for production from 2021 to 2023.

Apple have been trying to get into automotive for several years. Project Titan never really got off the ground, but CarPlay has been well received. For Alphabet, they have to hedge their position that Level 3 is redundant and have already moved to Level 4. There are many articles discussing this, here is one: https://www.wired.com/2017/01/human-problem-blocking-path-self-driving-cars/

I totally disagree with that view and Level 3 is very much possible, but it needs advanced DMS and sufficient human factors research to understand what humans do in the seconds and minutes following handing over driving to machine intelligence. Seeing Machines are underway with this work, led by Mike Lenné and the CAN Drive project. As Tesla have found – and Cadillac proven – you cannot even do Level 2 safely without camera DMS and the recent EC legislation calls for mandatory advanced distraction DMS (camera-based) even for Level 0. Other regions will follow in my view.

Both Apple and Alphabet need it, ideally so the other doesn’t have the technology. Whoever wins gets a minimum 3-5 year lead on the other (automotive qualification alone is 3 years – and Fovio is automotive qualified). Remember Zuck bought WhatsApp for $19 billion so Facebook had a potential rival under control. Conventional metrics for valuing a company won’t apply, this would be a straight Battle of the Titans. I’ll be watching.”

The writer holds stock in Seeing Machines.

Toyota or bid announcement?

The good news for investors in Seeing Machines is that I’m hearing from multiple sources that Seeing Machines is set to win a contract with Toyota next.

Apparently, it’s the only driver monitoring system (DMS) that is being specified in multiple Tier 1 bids – as was the case with the big BMW win recently. If true – and I see no reason to doubt my sources’ information – it just goes to further reinforce the global domination of Seeing Machines’ Fovio DMS in the auto industry.

Bid coming?

For that reason, I’m not surprised that there are now 10 market makers for the company on the London Stock Exchange, up from 4 a year ago. Most recently, Berenberg have started broking them. The better news is that I think this German bank may be acquiring shares for a company that plans to bid for Seeing Machines.

I could be wrong about that last assumption: Berenberg may be buying for a German fund. Nevertheless, various sources are warning of an imminent low ball bid – somewhere around 25p-30p a share for Seeing Machines. 

Some of my sources believe it is a Tier 1 auto supplier, others discount that theory. Interestingly, when asked about this in a previous interview back in March, Ken Kroeger did tease: “I agree it is either someone like that who can see the full value or a really diverse Tier 2 or Tier 1, as opposed to the OEM.”

While traders might be impressed by that figure, anyone with any knowledge of the auto industry and even an average understanding of Seeing Machines proven technological global dominance in driver monitoring systems shouldn’t be.

If such a bid should materialise I’ve been told by multiple sources that certain chip manufacturers (Intel/Nvidia, Xilinx and Qualcomm) would most likely be prepared to offer a lot more than a measly 30p. So I fully expect a competitive bidding situation to materialise if the rumour turns out to be fact.

Seeing Machines house brokers haven’t issued any upgrades in a long while. Still, based purely on old figures from Canaccord Genuity’s Caspar Trenchard note of Jan 9, (which excludes any figures for the huge Ford win as well as the big BMW win) it must be worth at least 59p a share. That is 30 times forecast revenues for 2019 of A$79.5m = 59p a share.

You could even argue that SEE should be on a higher multiple, such as the 42 times revenue multiple that Intel paid for Mobileye when it went for US$15.3bn. That would equate to roughly 83p a share for Seeing Machines. (This obviously ignores any value for Fleet, Rail and the Caterpillar business).

Yet, the strategic importance of Seeing Machines to the future of transport (never mind vision for robotics) will have been noted far and wide. In such a situation, I’ve been told that the chip companies are often prepared to pay up without months of haggling over the odd US$1bn. It’s small change to them when global domination is at stake.

Even Apple and Alphabet (parent of Waymo) can surely see the sense in DMS, so for what is petty cash for them they could also come in.

The writer holds shares in Seeing Machines.

Seeing Machines is worth £2bn

I know a few investors thought I was ramping when I wrote in a previous blog post ‘Seeing Machines wins BMW contract worth between US$125m to US$250m‘ that this AIM-listed minnow was worth £2bn (89p a share).

My reasoning is simple: it’s currently the leading specialist supplier in the global automotive market. (Read that slowly and ponder the implications as automotive is one of the hottest tech sectors in the world).

You want proof? Fovio, Seeing Machines’ world leading driver monitoring technology is currently being used by General Motors in its Super Cruise system for semi-autonomous cars, and is set to go into production in Mercedes and BMW cars within the next couple of years. 

Note that even before the BMW win, house broker Canaccord Genuity affirmed Seeing Machines was worth 21p in note dated 9th January. Analyst Caspar Trenchard also indicated that “the Fovio ‘platform’ technology might well be of specific additional worth to a corporate acquiror.”

Increased regulation is driving this adoption and many other car manufacturers and Tier 1s are queuing up to use Seeing Machines over the next year. I fully expect Subaru, VW, Audi and a host of others to follow in due course. (Tesla really ought to be banging on Seeing Machines’ door to get their kit into its cars.)

Lorne Daniel

Lorne Daniel, Head of Research at FinnCap, is a well respected tech analyst who has previously compared Seeing Machines to Mobileye, which was bought by Intel for US$15.3bn. 

I needed a sanity check to ensure I wasn’t deluding myself as to its intrinsic value, so I asked Lorne Daniel a simple question: “Do you think a £2bn valuation on Seeing Machines is unrealistic, given its increasing dominance in the auto OEM market?”

His reply: “Absolutely it’s a realistic valuation. The end markets are enormous and time and again the company is delivering on its promise with very big companies.”

Of course, I can imagine many readers moaning, “But its price is less than 5p!”

Well, as Warren Buffet once famously said: “Price is what you pay, value is what you get.”

Low-ball bid

Given the fact the stock is currently languishing below 5p, my own concern is that there is a distinct possibility an opportunistic bidder may soon seek to take advantage of this valuation anomaly with a low-ball bid.

Should that event materialise, my hope is that the management and quality institutional investors, such as Herald’s Katie Potts and Miton’s Gervais Williams (who’ve been invested here for years and fully realise what it is now worth), would resist any such offer and seek a price that fully reflects its value.

After all, the likes of Apple, Google, Samsung and Tesla — not to mention a host of Tier 1 automotive suppliers (Autoliv, Bosch, Aptiv, Denso and Continental etc)— are likely to be keen to acquire Seeing Machines’ technology. 

Think about it. £2bn is a realistic valuation for Seeing Machines. Moreover, £2bn for some of these companies is money that they can easily afford to spend in order to build market share in the automotive market.

The writer holds stock in Seeing Machines.

Seeing Machines delivering on long-term strategy

In an exclusive interview with Seeing Machines interim Chief Executive Ken Kroeger, he has confirmed that the company remains on track to hit its first half financial targets and is making no adjustments to its full year figures.

Following the departure of former chief executive Mike McAuliffe, who had only been in place a few months, private investors have been concerned as to whether there was likely to be any strategic change of direction. Happily, as Ken Kroeger confirmed: “The strategy that we’re executing is exactly the same one that we were executing when he arrived. Moreover, the executive team that is delivering that strategy remains the same.”

It’s a point that was well made by Lorne Daniel, analyst at house broker FinnCap a week ago, when he wrote: “We know that the second tier of management in this business is particularly strong and will continue to follow the strategy and deliver on the milestones as expected.”

The business certainly seems to be making steady progress across fleet, auto and aviation and Kroeger stressed the efforts of the executive team in having built them up. “These are businesses that didn’t even exist a few year ago and Paul Angelatos (Fleet), Nick Di Fiore (automotive) and Pat Nolan (Aviation) have done a great job in creating and building these markets for Seeing Machines.”

Auto industry

Not only is Seeing Machines working with GM to deliver driver monitoring systems for its cars (most notably the Cadillac CT6 whose Supercruise system uses it), but on October 30, 2017 its Fovio Driver Monitoring System was chosen by a premium German OEM (who I believe to be Mercedes).

Kroeger wouldn’t comment on who the German OEM is but did confirm: “It is extensively pushing the boundaries in driver monitoring, taking it to a whole new level. That is underway. That is a real state of the art delivery, very technically challenging but it sets a completely new performance standard for DMS.”

Given recent bulletin board discussions as to the respective merits of Seeing Machines technology vs. SmartEye, Kroeger was happy to explain: “We have the best technology, there is no doubt about that at all. SmartEye has an okay technology, which is cheaper…we’re much better positioned to take the premium car models that are interested in performance, who need this to work because it is a safety critical feature. For models that are being rolled out where it is nice to have comfort features in the car, which only require rudimentary head and eye-tracking, SmartEye is a viable option.

He added: “Right now we definitely have a leadership position from a technical perspective. That is very much respected by the auto OEMs.”

In addition, I’m optimistic that other OEMs will select Seeing Machines DMS technology, doubtless driven by the NCAP requirement for any car model wishing to have a 5 star safety rating from 2020 to have a DMS in place.

In Japan strong market opportunities are being helped by the effort of Kevin Tanaka working out of the West Coast in the US. Also Kroeger confirmed: “There is a very strong alignment with Xilinx in Japan, who are doing a lot of our on the ground marketing for us. It is definitely getting well received by the Japanese.”

Fleet

While a comprehensive Fleet update is due this week that should provide much awaited news on further wins, Kroeger did reveal that the Guardian 2.0 device will start shipping by the end of March. The upgraded system is significantly cheaper to manufacture, smaller and easier to install, which should also help increase penetration rates.

Takeover

Given the much higher profile of Seeing Machines since the launch of the Cadillac CT6 and the most recent CES show, where it was showcased by both Bosch and Autoliv speculation is increasing daily over whether it is being tracked for takeover, whether by a Tier 1, a telematics company, or even Google or Apple.

Asked about this Kroeger coyly replied: “There is always interest. We would never say ‘no’ to a conversation but we also recognise that there will a time when the time is right to return the best value to shareholders. We’re very cautious about the conversations we do have and, if we were to contemplate selling the company, we would have to find somebody who valued the entire organisation to obtain the full value for it.”

When pressed further about Google, Apple or Amazon seeing the long term value in Seeing Machines technology, which has applications far beyond transport alone, given it can enable robots to see and perhaps eventually even empathise with humans, Ken Kroeger commented: “I agree it is either someone like that who can see the full value or a really diverse Tier 2 or Tier 1, as opposed to the OEM. The Tier 1s sell to the OEMs but some of the Tier 2s which sell to the Tier 1s are exceptionally diverse. They might be building stuff for automotive, stuff for aviation and stuff for medical devices, stuff for consumer electronics. They might not just be an automotive-centric supplier. They are really hard to find and pinpoint but they are out there because they are always talking to us.

Of the partners that Seeing Machines currently has some are definite possibles. “Or, it could be someone who sells image processors and wants to start packaging it with software already on it on a smart camera or smart sensor,” teased Kroeger.

Despite being a world leader in DMS tech, a key plank in the forthcoming generation of semi-autonomous cars and increasingly being considered in trains, planes, trams and buses, it’s current share price languishes at approximately 5.5p. This valuation anomaly cannot last much longer, especially as with the recent fundraise it has been largely de-risked as an investment provided sales continues.

Ironically, such a deeply discounted valuation could well be the catalyst for an opportunistic bid from a cash-rich global player before the year end.

The writer holds stock in Seeing Machines.

Is Seeing Machines a takeover target?

Seeing Machines interims yesterday were slightly disappointing in so far as Fleet sales have yet to take off, although they are progressing.

I’m not going to rehash the numbers here, except to say that with nearly A$40m in cash it isn’t in any immediate danger of needing a fundraise to fund the further development of Fovio.

My hope is that the V2 version of Guardian which apparently costs around US$625 vs US$1000, together with Mix Telematics’ product incorporating the integrated SEE system should boost Fleet sales. I anticipate both will be ready within 3-6 months.

Still, I could be wrong about the timeframes and therein lies the risk. Although the spending on Fovio is capable of being scaled back SEE is trying to grab OEM automotive market share in the hottest sector of the automotive market. The funding to cover this is intended to come from Fleet and Mining sales.

Only if Fleet doesn’t scale up and make a substantial contribution, might SEE require a further fundraise before it reaches profitability — unless it chose to scale back spending on Fovio.

That said, I don’t expect this will happen. I believe that an imminent deal with Progress Rail, along the lines of the it struck with Caterpillar should provide short term funding to avoid even the slight risk that they might need to raise more money further down the line, before it becomes profitable.

That a deal with Progress is close at hand was confirmed in the interim statement yesterday, when SEE stated: “The company is in final negotiation stage for a global agreement with Progress Rail. We expect an agreement to be in place during 2017.”

Lorne Daniels

Analyst Lorne Daniels, in a note issued yesterday from house broker finnCap, reduced his sales estimates for Financial Year (FY) 2017 to A$13.4m with a pre-tax loss of A$33m, with estimated sales of A$52m for FY2018 and a pre-tax loss of A$17.3m. Only in FY 2019 is SEE forecast to deliver a pre-tax profit of A$2.8m on sales of A$117.8m.

I’d urge caution on the numbers as there are a lot of unknowns, but the direction of travel is clear.

More importantly, I think investors need to appreciate the bigger picture here, as Lorne Daniels eloquently stated:

“The struggle with Fleet sales is disappointing but solvable and should not detract from the overall focus on the goal Seeing Machines is working towards. While new competitors like Tobii, SmartEye and EyeTech are seeking entry to the market, Seeing Machines remains well ahead in terms of product development, routes to market, experience and proof of success in the field; already deployed in thousands of mining vehicles where its rivals can point to no real-world use at all. Seeing Machines is deliberately investing heavily to capitalise on its leadership by deploying its cheap and easy to adopt SiP solution. This will entrench its market leadership across a wide range of operator monitoring markets but primarily that huge automotive market.”

Nevertheless, as SEE’s share price languishes at a pitiful 3.5p, despite all the progress made in a variety of end markets, the company is easy prey for a speculative offer.

Indeed, given the recent purchase of Mobileye for $15bn by Intel, you have to wonder how long it will be before one of the big players (perhaps Google, Apple?) will make Seeing Machines an offer they can’t refuse.

Lorne Daniel estimates that applying the 42x sales multiple (on which the Intel bid for Mobileye was based) to Seeing Machines’ 2017 sales forecast provides a valuation of A$563m (£353m) or 24p a share.

I’m sure that would satisfy many private investors frustrated at the current share price. And yet…apply that to the projected sales for only one year later in 2018 and you end up with A$2184m (£1,370m) or 92p a share.

In my view, a little more patience is required while realising that investing isn’t risk free.

The writer holds stock in Seeing Machines.

Seeing Machines develops hardware chip

Seeing Machines’ announcement today that it has launched its first generation ‘Fovio’ embedded hardware chip has sent the share price flying. The reason being it appears strengthen its technical leadership in transport tech for fatigue and distraction monitoring while also broadening its reach, towards a diverse range of Artificial Intelligence and ‘Internet of Things’ applications.

Lorne Daniel, analyst at house broker FinnCap, commented: “The latter is new, and hints at an even broader market than previously supposed. Current contracted OEM vehicle deliveries (assumed to mean GM 2017 CT6 Cadillac with SuperCruise) are on track to launch in 2017 as software; however, the FOVIO chips are likely to be used in the second generation rollout to the entire GM range as agreed in the follow-on OEM contract. Embedding the software in a chip reduces the cost and time to market for OEMs and their tier-1 suppliers, facilitating mass market rollout since driver distraction is becoming a critical issue for the industry.”

There has been no update on its automotive spin-out, although technical progress clearly continues. Ken Kroeger, chief executive officer of Seeing Machines, commented in the RNS: “I am delighted to announce the introduction of our FOVIO DMS Chip which, as a World first, further cements Seeing Machines’ position as global leader in the Driver Monitoring industry. The FOVIO Chip will greatly reduce the cost of DMS deployment, helping to accelerate not just our growth but mass market uptake of DMS technology in general. This product will become the key offering of FOVIO, our new stand-alone automotive business that is currently being structured and staffed.” 

One assumes that any hard negotiations taking place with potential investors in the auto spin-off should be made easier by this announcement. Certainly, it can only make SEE a more attractive target for any cash-rich company wishing to dominate this space.

With all the talk about Apple buying McLaren recently, one wonders if this company is on its radar? Certainly, See’s market cap is too small given its leadership in the DMS space.

Q&A with Ken Kroeger

Below is a brief Q&A that Ken Kroeger, chief executive officer of Seeing Machines replied to late today (Australian time). Unlike a robot he still has to sleep – still, I am sure SEE are working on that.

1) Why was the news announced now, 2 weeks before the results? Is it to strengthen the hand of SEE in negotiations with the spin-off partners for Fovio and telemetric partners re. Guardian?

We demonstrated the chip to the first tier-1 this week and our Nomad felt that the market should be informed at the same time considering the quantum of the investment that has been made in the design, development and first runs of samples, which is now in the millions of dollars as it’s been two years of work from a sizeable team.

   

2) How does this news affect the auto spin-off? I’d assumed that a chip manufacturer/designer such as Intel or Arm might be a possible investor – does it make that more or less likely now?

The chip has been in development for two years. The semiconductor companies are all interested in our business and would all like us to migrate to their silicon in order to drive sales of their offering. We have a current silicon strategy working with an unnamed major partner that delivers not only the required hardware performance, but also the margins that are essential to the long term success of the auto business. The technical team has been built specifically around this particular silicon technology so a change would require additional investment.

3) How would you describe the significance of this move?

It’s an amazing step when you think about the fact that until two years ago everything we had ever sold ran on a very expensive computer and that everything ran on the Windows platform. Here we are today, running higher performing software on a device that we can sell for a tenth of the cost of that older processor and still have healthy margins in the business.

   

 4) Do you have any information on how much cheaper it will make the cost of DMS deployment?

We can say that if it was available for the first generation OEM automotive product, it would deliver a greater than 15% saving to the end price of the system. A significant number when you’re buying things such as millions of cars.

My Conclusion

As it’s well known that the growing ambitions of this company require more funding I’m very keen to hear more about how this development plays into Seeing Machines’ overall strategy.

Its results presentation will be on October 3rd, which should be a very interesting day.

The writer holds stock in Seeing Machines