What is Wayve? What you need to know about the UK’s hottest new unicorn

The self-driving car startup has sped onto the scene this week after winning Europe’s biggest ever AI funding deal to date.

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Helena Young

Wayve, the AI startup that is developing self-driving cars has secured a record-breaking investment worth $1.05bn (£800 million) in a funding round led by Japan’s SoftBank. 

Wayve’s latest windfall means it is now Europe’s biggest AI success story, beating the previous $500m funding record set by Germany’s Aleph Alpha in November. 

The company will use the money to develop its unique smart technology, and to fund international expansion. This could position it as a rival to some of the world’s largest self-driving car manufacturers, including Tesla. 

Seemingly overnight, Wayve has parked itself alongside the world’s leading startups. Here’s what you need to know about the business and its origins.

What is Wayve?

Founded in 2017, Wayve describes itself as “the leader in developing embodied AI technology for autonomous driving.”

Most of us think of Elon Musk’s auto company, Tesla when we think of self-driving cars. Tesla’s system is already live on US roads, but has not been legalised for use in the UK.

However, consumers need to buy a Tesla to experience the firm’s autopilot system. Wayve instead aims to sell its self-driving “embodied AI” as a platform to other car manufacturers. 

Using embodied AI, Wayve essentially teaches its computers to drive in the same way that humans take driving lessons. The computer watches real drivers and learns through trial and error, known as “end-to-end learning”.

While it has yet to leave the shop just yet, Wayve has already carried out autonomous car trials on public roads and has been integrated into advanced driver assistance systems by partners Jaguar and Ford.

Its latest investment round has been announced just weeks before the Automated Vehicle Bill is set to become law. The new legislation will introduce a range of safety standards for self-driving cars to meet before they can be used on UK roads.

The UK government has predicted that startups like Wayve will help to accelerate the rollout of self-driving vehicles and unlock a market worth up to £42 billion.

Who is the founder of Wayve?

New Zealand-native, Alex Kendall is co-founder and CEO of Wayve. Something of a child prodigy, he was accepted into the second year of mechatronics engineering by The University of Auckland straight from high school. 

He then went on to study a PhD in Deep Learning, Computer Vision, and Robotics at the University of Cambridge. In his final year of studies, he co-founded Wayve using his research into the autonomous vehicle industry.

Co-founder Amar Shah, also served as joint CEO of Wayve for the company’s first three years. Shah, who holds a PhD in machine learning, met Kendall while the two were studying together at Cambridge. 

Together, the two took the business to dizzying heights. Four years ago, they secured $20 million in Series A funding, and even received backing from Uber’s chief scientist Zoubin Ghahramani.

However, according to Shah’s LinkedIn profile, he is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of Wayve, having left the company in 2020 to launch another fast-growth startup, pharmaceutical firm CHARM Therapeutics.

What does the Wayve funding mean for UK AI businesses?

Supported by government initiatives such as its pioneering AI white paper, the UK’s developing machine learning sector has seen massive growth in the past two years.

Last year, Startups reported that investment in early-stage AI companies in the UK grew by an estimated 66% between 2022 and 2023.

Likely, the Wayve announcement will create further waves by signalling to investors that the country is an exciting space for cutting-edge startups.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the deal “anchors the UK’s position as an AI superpower,” and praised Wayve as a home-grown British success story.

“We are already a world leader in AI, and this is further evidence that the UK is now firmly the global destination for tech innovation and growth,” he added.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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