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How failed OS startup Cyanogen pivoted into self-driving construction equipment

Remember Cyanogen? It’s now Cyngn, and may have since moved on to yet another autonomous tech.

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This post has been updated.

In 2015, when there was still an ounce of hope to compete with Google and Apple in the smartphone operating system world, Cyanogen Inc. was producing an open-source operating system for Android devices. Its software was running on 50 million phones and was on track to hit half a billion handsets by 2020, the company said.

Then it all went wrong. A series of what one of its co-founders called “bad” business deals, and disagreements about the future of its Cyanogen Mod operating system, resulted in the company firing most of its staff and closing its Seattle office at the end of last year.

Now, as Axios first reported yesterday, Cyanogen is back, calling itself Cyngn and promising “innovative solutions for autonomous machines and vehicles.” The company is still in stealth mode, but Recode has pieced together some of the story of its renaissance from documents, websites and interviews.

At its peak, Cyanogen Inc. employed around 150 staff. All but about 15 were let go late in 2016, when co-founders Kirt McMaster and Steve Kondik also left the company. Cyngn’s CEO is now Lior Tal, who had been COO until McMaster’s departure.

McMaster went on to found his own mobility company, Nere — also in stealth — while Kondik is an engineer at Oculus, Facebook’s VR company. Neither would comment on Cyngn’s pivot to autonomy.

That pivot occurred because executives and board members at Cyngn see automated vehicles as being as disruptive in the next five years as smartphones have been over the last decade. Cyngn is now back up to around 30 staff, including autonomous automotive engineers from Mercedes Benz and Udacity, according to LinkedIn, and is still on a hiring spree.

In late September, Cyngn received a permit to test two autonomous vehicles in California. Those vehicles are street-legal electric golf carts. However, unlike many of the other transportation startups testing in California, Cyngn does not intend to build a self-driving passenger vehicle.

A document prepared for a South Korean trade delegation to Silicon Valley in May reveals that Cyngn is planning to convert loaders, excavators and other construction vehicles to become fully autonomous. The presentation said that Cyngn had already developed and integrated a beta version of an autonomous system based on computer vision and deep learning, and that it would be commercializing its technology by the end of August. However, Cyngn now says that this document no longer reflects the current direction of the company.

Job listings on Glassdoor show that Cyngn is working with radar, camera, ultrasonic, and lidar sensors, and using ROS, an open-source operating system for robots. But Cyngn will not be following Cyanogen in offering its software as a free or open-source platform, nor using any of Cyanogen’s intellectual property, according to a source close to the company.

Over its three year existence and funding to Series C, Cyanogen Inc raised a total of $115 million from 15 investors, including Andreessen Horowitz, Benchmark Capital, Qualcomm Ventures, Foxconn and Tencent. The Korean document says that Cyngn now wants to raise a further $200 million in a Series D round, and that the company is also open to being purchased outright.

Update: This post has been updated to note that the document prepared for a Korean trade delegation no longer reflects the company’s current direction.

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