Developing next-gen tech in Silicon Valley
Dr Ashod Donikian is reimagining 3D location-tracking technology with his Silicon Valley startup, Navisens.
Dr Ashod Donikian
PhD Engineering, 2010
Graduate Certificate in Research Commercialisation, 2008
Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical), 2003
Founder and CEO, Navisens
GPS plays a central role in modern life, but the technology — developed in the 1960s for military use — isn’t really suited to the age of the smartphone, argues robotics engineer and UTS graduate Dr Ashod Donikian.
“It wasn’t built for using indoors or in dense city areas,” he says, “and it has a very low power signal because it’s meant to be invisible to enemies.”
For his PhD, Donikian tasked himself with inventing a location-tracking system that would not only work inside, but could be used to find firefighters in a burning building.
The best sensor, he decided, is the one in your pocket: your smartphone.
Using machine-learning algorithms, he created a technology that harnesses a device’s inbuilt accelerometers and gyroscopes to provide a 3D-navigation tool. It’s location and motion mapping without the need for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or GPS.
Upon receiving his PhD, Donikian took his life-saving tech to Silicon Valley.
“It was clear no-one cared about the firefighter example,” he says. “They’d say, ‘Are you crazy? Google needs this, Apple needs this, Uber needs this.’”
Part of the excitement of running a startup is that anything can happen, but that’s also part of the uncertainty.
At the time, Donikian was sleeping in his car and pitching to anyone who would listen. First responders, it turns out, aren’t early adopters.
“Once we’re trusted by the commercial market, we can go into this smaller, adjacent one,” he says.
Today, Donikian’s company, Navisens, employs nine engineers and licenses the technology to app developers who require location tracking, be it for maps, ride-sharing services or delivering goods.
While the company is still at startup stage, Donikian is in talks with some major tech companies — but until there’s a deal in place for his game-changing location platform, he’s keeping that information close to his chest.
Dr Ashod Donikian is the recipient of the 2019 UTS Alumni Award for Excellence in Engineering and Information Technology.
ROLE MODELS: “I owe a lot to my parents, especially my mum. She’s like my invisible co-founder.”
SECRET SKILL: “Grit and determination.”
Q&A: Ashod on leading positive change
What’s the hardest part of running a tech startup?
“It’s challenging day in, day out. Part of the excitement is that anything can happen, but that’s also part of the uncertainty. One week, you might be doing something with the most valuable companies in the world; another week you might be struggling to get customers.”
How do you deal with uncertainty?
“I just do it. I think people think about things too much. If I thought about everything I’d have to do once I moved here to Silicon Valley – hire engineers, raise money, incorporate a company and find my first customers – then I never would have gotten started.”
What advice do you have for engineering students?
“Really think about your undergraduate thesis. As an employer, I’ve looked at thousands of CVs and seeing what a graduate did for their thesis tells you a lot about what they’re interested in, and whether they pushed themselves.”