March 8, 2021

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Duke AI Security Screening Start-up Goes Public Via SPAC Deal


By Celeste Ferguson

Evolv Technology, a Duke start-up founded out of the lab of David Smith, James B. Duke Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, went public using a nontraditional method called SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company.

The touchless security screening company is merging with the SPAC NewHold Investment Corp to go public in a deal that values Evolv at about $1.7 billion. The company is backed by investors including Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Evolv is transforming the physical security industry as the first AI-enabled touchless security bag screening system in the market. The platform, called The Evolv Express™, requires no stopping, no emptying of pockets, or removing bags. People simply walk through naturally, alleviating congestion and long lines.

Having screened over 50 million people, Evolv is second only to the TSA in screening people in the U.S. at venues such as amusement parks, sports stadiums, and smaller airports.

In 2020, Evolv modified their technology to also screen for people with elevated body temperatures, a feature that has seen a significant demand this past year.

“The origin of Evolv’s technology was our work at Duke University on security imaging,” said Smith. “So, it’s especially exciting to see the concepts initially developed as basic research transition to useful products that can have a positive impact on our lives.”

Smith explained that when a company spins out, it acquires its own life and identity, and the technology changes quite a bit from what was initially imagined. Evolv has been a great example of this natural growth; as the company developed their market, they have modified the initial technology concepts and integrated many other key features, such as machine learning.

The result has been extremely successful, with Evolv poised to become a major player in the security space. “It’s amazing to have been part of this process and have played a key role in forming and incubating Evolv,” Smith said.

The story of metamaterials and entrepreneurship is continuing to be written. Evolv was the second of about eight companies spun out of David Smith’s lab into actual implementation. So far, all of the companies have met with success and may have similarly impressive outcomes.

Products are being developed and sold for satellite communications, terrestrial communications, automotive LiDAR and radar, neuromorphic computing, and wireless power transfer.

“Most of these ideas have been seeded in the lab at Duke where we are able to explore new ideas with a great deal of freedom,” said Smith.  “There are many, many more ideas we have in the pipeline so that hopefully the process that led to Evolv’s success will repeat again and again!”

In addition to Duke, Intellectual Ventures has been a key contributor to the success of Evolv.  Using an unusual model, the company enabled the Smith Lab to efficiently move ideas from the lab to a proof-of-concept stage.

 

What is a SPAC?

A special purpose acquisitions company, or sometimes referred to as a “blank check company” is essentially a shell company set up by investors with the sole purpose of raising money through an IPO to acquire another company. Subsequently, an operating company can merge with (or be acquired by) the publicly traded SPAC and become a listed company in lieu of executing its own IPO.