Published: Jan. 22, 2024 By

Photo: LiteWave EDGE, a drone-mounted LiDAR system to detect small underwater objects, measure shallow water depth and survey critical underwater infrastructure

LiteWave Technologies, a spinout of CU Boulder and a subsidiary of Orion Space Solutions, has been acquired by Arcfield, a leading government technology and mission support provider.

LiteWave’s core technology emerged from the lab of Jeffrey Thayer, professor emeritus and research professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences (College of Engineering and Applied Science). In 2011, alongside two CU Boulder graduate students, he invented a new type of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) that could ‘see’ objects in shallow water from above the water’s surface.

Until Thayer’s discovery, sonar was the gold standard for detecting underwater features, but its acoustic-based, underwater approach was problematic in exploring shallow waters. Thayer wanted to overcome sonar’s navigation, access and field of view limitations with LiDAR, which uses pulses of visible light to create a detailed, 3D picture of the desired environment. “It was a difficult problem that people talked about using sophisticated solutions. We provided a robust solution without it being overly complex,” he said. “We proved we could do that detection with a design that would work outside the lab.”

LiteWave’s resulting Edge™ technology solves the problem of measuring water depth and identifying features in shallow water to a centimeter-level depth resolution. It is now used on unmanned aerial systems for mapping, surveying, hazard assessment, natural resource monitoring, disaster recovery and more.

The Path to Commercialization

When a university startup is created, it is the culmination of years of research and significant work by the founders to build a compelling company vision, strategy and business model. The team at Venture Partners is here to help with each step along the way, including:

The technology was originally licensed through CU Boulder’s Technology Transfer Office—what’s now Venture Partners at CU Boulder—over a decade ago. The company worked with Thayer, who served as LiteWave’s chief technology officer, to file patents and negotiate an agreement with Orion Space Solutions. LiteWave landed funding from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) and the university through CU Boulder’s Lab Venture Challenge (LVC) in 2018. 

That $125,000 LVC grant was instrumental in commercializing LiteWave’s drone-mounted LiDAR. “That really helped advance the technology to the product level,” said Thayer.

By leveraging grants like LVC and generating early revenue with their Edge mapping solution, LiteWave was able to “build an attractive and sustainable business,” said Bryn Rees, associate vice chancellor for research and innovation and managing director of Venture Partners. “What’s remarkable about the LiteWave story is how the team was able to successfully launch and grow without raising any private investment,” he said. “It’s a testament to Professor Thayer’s elegant innovation for underwater mapping and also to the entire LiteWave team.”

Over the years, Thayer has patented related technology and has continued to work with Venture Partners. Overall, the process of bringing an invention to market “was an eye-opening experience, and it was exciting, and it’s still exciting now,” said Thayer. “Because there’s a new entity [Arcfield], even more momentum will accelerate things that we are hoping to get done.” Post-acquisition, Thayer expects to continue in an advisory, mentoring and consulting role for Arcfield.

Today, CU Boulder’s leading-edge research continues to drive innovation with market potential and, through Venture Partners, inventors have a whole suite of options to help them navigate the commercialization process from intellectual property management, business modeling, funding, licensing and more.