Exclusive: Behind Electric Vehicle-Maker Karma's Plans to Go Public
Rachel Uranga covers the intersection of business, technology and culture. She is a former Mexico-based market correspondent at Reuters and has worked for several Southern California news outlets, including the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Los Angeles Daily News. She has covered everything from IPOs to immigration. Uranga is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and California State University Northridge. A Los Angeles native, she lives with her husband, son and their felines.
Luxury electric car company Karma is in talks with investment banks to help it go public, company officials told dot.LA.
Karma is hoping to ride the Tesla wave of success and capitalize on the soaring valuations of its competitors.
"We want to take advantage of the fact that the market is red hot right now, so we want to be fast," said Mikael Elley, chief of staff at Karma Automotive.
The Chinese-owned automaker hopes to go public either through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company or through an initial public offering in the U.S. or Hong Kong over the next six months, he said.
Elley didn't say how much the company, headquartered in an office park in Irvine, was hoping to raise but it's in the midst of carrying out ambitious plans to increase its production of cars by at least ten times its current output. It's also developing delivery vans and selling an electric vehicle startup platform to manufacturers.
"We know a lot of Tesla owners, they feel like 'it's my Silicon Valley Camry', right? I mean everybody else has got one, so they're looking for something else. There's definitely a void in the market."
Billing itself a "high-tech mobility incubator," the company says it can help larger car companies that are investing billions of dollars into capital for new green cars manufacture, design and engineer them.
"We are talking with investment bankers right now to take us down that path," he said. "I think that everybody realizes that there is still a void, there is still an opportunity to get into the EV space."
Elon Musk's publicly traded Tesla became the most valuable car company in the world this July. And while it only produces a fraction of the world's new cars, its skyrocketing share value has given momentum to the $95 billion electric vehicle market, with sales expected to quadruple by 2025.
Electric vehicle maker Rivian, which plans to sell electric pickup trucks next year, announced it raised $2.5 billion earlier this month. It was followed by Los Angeles-based Fisker's news that it will go public in a deal with a SPAC valued at $2.9 billion. Both are direct competitors, although neither is on the market yet.
"If you are an EV company, now is the time to go to market," said Asad Hussain, mobility tech analyst at Pitchbook. "Right now sentiment on EVs is so positive that less-established EV companies — even companies without a product — are getting high valuations, but that could change."
With production facilities in Moreno Valley, Karma is the only U.S.-based electric vehicle startup that is producing and selling vehicles other than Tesla. Last year it rolled out about 550 of its Revero GT, an ultra luxury electric vehicle that starts around $135,000.
But Elley said that Karma wants to ramp up production of the Revero GTE, set for release mid-year 2021, and bring down cost to $100,000 so the car appeals to a broader market.
"We think that we can get the price down to take advantage of more volume and still be the luxury premium space," he said. "We know a lot of Tesla owners, they feel like 'it's my Silicon Valley Camry', right? I mean everybody else has got one, so they're looking for something else. There's definitely a void in the market."
Inside Karma Automotive's manufacturing plant in Irvine, California.Courtesy of Karma
He expects to produce 5,000 to 10,000 of the new cars. Meanwhile, the company is tweaking a branding campaign that can extend its luxury reputation and building lifestyle events around their vehicles such as wine tasting or trips. It's also eyeing a new generation of drivers. Karma has created a partnership with TikTok to raise the company's profile.
"It's a step in the right direction. But it's still a competitive market," Hussain said.
The company is up against Porsche and Tesla in that price range, both with vehicles that have a reputation for better performance, he said. But Karma's "exceptional design" has made it attractive to enthusiasts.
Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker created what is now Karma as Fisker Automotive in 2007 before it filed for bankruptcy in 2013. It was picked up the following year by auto parts manufacturer Wanxiang Group Corp. and renamed Karma. Four years ago, Henrik Fisker created an eponymously named competitor - which plans to sell its SUV Ocean in 2022.
Wanxiang has pumped about $2 billion into Karma, which has struggled to catch on. Earlier this month, president of Wanxiang's U.S. business Pin Ni said Karma secured $100 million from private investors and has been looking to raise $300 million through shares as it seeks to expand its line of cars. Elley said as part of the financing effort, its parent company has agreed to set the company down the path to an IPO. It comes amid an executive shake-up and layoffs at Karma earlier this year.
Karma is trying to penetrate a market that traditional carmakers from Audi to Hyundai are trying to establish a foothold. Despite the pandemic, most carmakers haven't pulled back electric vehicle investment, a sign of just how much the market is expected to grow.
But Karma executives said the company is not relying on its sporty car for success, it has pivoted to become a car and technology company, an acknowledgement that car-making alone is too capital-intensive to sustain.
Courtesy of Karma
Inside their corporate headquarters five so-called platforms, these modular engine and frames that make up the undergirding design of their electric car, are laid out just beyond the lobby. Using their show floor for these boxy, under-the-hood products is a nod to just how central that strategy has become.
"It is a strategy we have to improve our efficiency and reduce the complexity," said Kevin Zhang, Karma chief technology officer. The modules can be used for Karma's own cars or be sold to larger manufacturers, he explained.
There's appetite for these. Earlier this year, Hyundai Motor Group - one of the world's largest carmakers - tapped Torrance-based startup Canoo for their platform . The terms of the deal weren't disclosed, but a similar deal between the Korean automaker and UK-based Arrival catapulted the startup to unicorn status.
Karma is also working on developing a delivery van that it hopes to sell to major fleet operators like Amazon, FedEx and UPS. Already, competitor Rivian has secured a commitment from Amazon for 100,000 cars.
"Amazon has much higher demand than the hundred thousand they're gonna get from Rivian. They also have a much higher demand for different types of vehicles..Same thing for UPS. Same thing for FedEx," Elley said. "There is a tremendous opportunity there."
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Despite — or in many cases because of — the raging pandemic, 2020 was a great year for many tech startups. It turned out to be an ideal time to be in the video game business, developing a streaming ecommerce platform for Gen Z, or helping restaurants with their online ordering.
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Hottest<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDk5MzIyNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTQ3MjQ2OH0.JYCNMjYvosYa5SI7701CH_jMFbeFdMcRCChXt442cq0/img.png?width=980" id="4a086" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f2f18f0bc4400a388e43736c560ff87f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="PopShop Live logo" data-width="686" data-height="128" />
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Andrew Peterson<p>Andrew Peterson is the co-founder and former chief executive of Signal Sciences, a web application security platform that he founded in 2014 and <a href="https://dot.la/signal-science-snapped-up-for-775m-in-big-l-a-saas-exit-2647256430.html" target="_self">was acquired in 2020 by Fastly in a $775 million deal</a>. Signal Sciences protects web applications from attacks and data breaches for clients like Duo Security, Under Armor and DoorDash.</p><p>Prior to starting Signal Sciences, Peterson worked at Etsy, helping the online marketplace with international growth as a group project manager. Etsy <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/3056900/how-three-ex-etsy-employees-turned-their-old-employer-into-a-consumer" target="_blank">reportedly became </a>one of Signal Sciences's first customers. Peterson has also served stints as health information management officer at the Clinton Foundation and as a senior product specialist at Google.</p>
Ara Mahdessian<p>Ara Mahdessian is the co-founder of ServiceTitan, a SaaS product for managing a home services business.</p><p>The inspiration for ServiceTitan, Mahdessian's first company, came from watching his parents start their own businesses in building and plumbing, only to struggle with the logistics behind keeping them running, he <a href="https://www.inc.com/magazine/201906/emily-canal/servicetitan-immigrant-inclusion-diversity-best-workplaces-2019.html" target="_blank">told Inc in 2019</a>. Mahdessian and his co-founder Vahe Kuzoyan met while in college, and worked on several consulting projects before starting ServiceTitan, in hopes of aiding small business owners like their parents.</p>
Evan Spiegel<p>Evan Spiegel is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Snap Inc., the Venice-based company known for its app Snapchat. He's also one of the youngest billionaires in the world, launching Snapchat while still an undergraduate at Stanford. </p><p>SnapChat, the company's app, has recently been taking on rival TikTok <a href="https://dot.la/snap-spotlight-2649022645.html" data-linked-post="2649022645" target="_blank">with a new feature</a> and a program meant to attract creators to its platform. And it is been at the center of a larger national debate on the power of big tech. </p>
Spencer Rascoff<p>Spencer Rascoff is the founder of several companies, including dot.LA. He started his career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, later leaving to co-found travel website Hotwire. After serving as vice president of lodging at Expedia, he went on to found Zillow, an online real estate marketplace that went public in 2011.</p><p>Rascoff's most recent project is Pacaso, a marketplace for buying, selling and co-owning a second home.</p>
Tim Ellis<p>Tim Ellis is the co-founder and chief executive of Relativity Space, an autonomous rocket factory and launch services leader for satellite constellations. He is the youngest member on the National Space Council Users Advisory Group and serves on the World Economic Forum as a "technology pioneer."</p><p>Before founding Relativity Space, Ellis studied aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California and interned at Masten Space Systems and Blue Origin, where he worked after graduation. He was a propulsion engineer and brought metal 3D printing in-house to the company.</p>
Travis Schneider<p>Travis Schneider is the co-founder and co-chief executive of PatientPop, a practice growth platform for healthcare providers. He founded the company with Luke Kervin in 2014. <br><br>The two have founded three companies together, including ShopNation, a fashion shopping engine that was later acquired by the Meredith Commerce Network.</p>
Luke Kervin<p>Luke Kervin is the other co-founder and co-chief of PatientPop. He is a serial entrepreneur — his first venture was Starbrand Media, which was acquired by Popsugar in May 2008. <br><br>Kervin and Schneider then founded ShopNation, and when it was acquired in 2012, Kervin served as the general manager and vice president at the Meredith Commerce Network for a few years before leaving to found PatientPop.</p><p>Kervin had the idea for PatientPop when he and his wife were expecting their first child, he told <a href="http://voyagela.com/interview/meet-luke-kervin-patientpop-santa-monica/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">VoyageLA</a>. They were frustrated with how the healthcare system wasn't focused on the consumers it was meant to serve. So in 2014, he and Schneider created PatientPop.</p>
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