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Who is Palmer Luckey? Billionaire Oculus founder sets sights on defence tech with Anduril start-up

By Mensholong Lepcha

Edited by Vanessa Kintu

11:30, 7 December 2022

almer Luckey, Founder, Oculus and Anduril,
Palmer Luckey is an American entrepreneur who founded virtual reality headset company Oculus VR. Photo: Horacio Villalobos / Gettyimages

Palmer Luckey is one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. Luckey co-founded virtual reality (VR) headset company Oculus VR as a 20-year old in 2012. He has since left Oculus and co-founded defence technology company Anduril Industries.

What is the story behind the Oculus Rift founder? Why is his latest company marred in controversy? Let’s find out.

Who is Palmer Luckey?

Palmer Luckey is an American entrepreneur who founded virtual reality headset company Oculus VR. The Oculus founder sold his company to Facebook in March 2014 in a cash-plus-stock deal worth about $2bn.

According to TechCrunch, Luckey launched Oculus VR with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. The company was sold to Facebook 601 days from its initial fund raising campaign. Luckey continued to work at Oculus VR under Facebook until April 2017, where he launched VR gaming headset Oculus Rift.

The creator of Oculus Rift left Facebook to start a defence technology company called Anduril Industries in 2017. 

Luckey also founded an online forum called ModRetro, which contains discussions on gaming, software, computers and electronic projects. 

Palmer Luckey’s net worth was reported to be $1.3bn as of July 2022, according to Forbes.

More recently, the Oculus inventor revealed that he was “halfway to making” a gaming VR headset that will kill its user if they die in the game. In a November 2022 blog, he wrote:

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“The idea of tying your real life to your virtual avatar has always fascinated me – you instantly raise the stakes to the maximum level and force people to fundamentally rethink how they interact with the virtual world and the players inside it.”

What is Andruil?

Anduril Industries is a defence technology company that focuses on software engineering and computing to create military solutions. It is headquartered in Costa Mesa, California, US.

“The problems US and allied militaries are facing are fundamentally software problems. To continue to enable the US, allies and partners to deter adversaries, Anduril is building software-defined and hardware-enabled capabilities that solve mission needs with autonomy, today,” said Andruil in a press release.

The company was founded in 2017 by Luckey, Brian Schimpf, Trae Stephens, Matt Grimm and Joseph Chen. Schimpf is CEO, Stephens the executive chairman and Grimm the chief operating officer. The trio were formerly employees at New York-listed defence contractor Palantir Technologies (PLTR). 

According to Andruil’s website, military veterans make up more than 20% of Andruil’s team. Co-founder Chen served as a paratrooper in the US Army National Guard.

The company’s flagship software offering is the Lattice OS, an autonomous “sense-making and command & control platform”. The software detects, tracks and classifies every object of interest in an operator’s vicinity, read the company’s website.

Andruil also has hardware solutions like artificial intelligence (AI) -powered drone Ghost, deep-water explorer Dive-LD and autonomous aerial defence system Counter UAS. According to its website, it has supported operations of the US Department of Defense, the US Department of Homeland Security, the Australian Defence Force and the UK Ministry of Defense.

Andruil makes headlines in 2022

Multi-billion dollar valuation

In December, Andruil completed a funding round, which valued the defence tech company at $8.48bn. The company announced that it raised $1.48bn in a Series E funding that nearly doubled its previous valuation from June 2021. 

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The funding round was led by Valor Equity Partners with participation from Founders Fund, a venture capital firm with Andruil co-founder Stephens as a partner.

Peter Theil, venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal and Palantir Technologies, is also a partner at Founders Fund. Other participating investors included Andreessen Horowitz, General Catalyst, Lux Capital, 8VC, WCM Investment Management and US Innovative Technology Fund.

Andruil said the new funding will accelerate research and development of autonomous defence capabilities to the market and help scale business lines with the US Department of Defense and allies.

Partnership with Palantir

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Anduril announced in July that it would be partnering with Palantir Technologies to develop the US Army’s Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node (TITAN) prototype. Palantir will lead a team of contractors with Anduril leading the hardware development of the prototype.

According to the press release, TITAN is an expeditionary intelligence ground station for long-range precision fires.

Other milestones in 2022

  • Anduril was awarded a 10-year contract worth $967m to be the US Special Operations Command’s Systems Integration Partner for counter-UAS technology.

  • In February 2022, the company acquired autonomous underwater vehicles start-up Dive Technologies for an undisclosed fee.

  • Anduril expanded to Australia in 2022 and signed a manufacturing contract worth $100m for extra-large autonomous undersea vehicles with the Royal Australian Navy.

  • The company has grown its team from 700 at the start of 2022 to more than 1,100 employees by December 2022.

Anduril’s controversial border surveillance system 

Anduril’s journey has not been short of controversy. The company was criticised for using its surveillance technology to aid former US President Donald Trump’s US-Mexico border agenda. According to The Guardian, Palmer Luckey has donated to a pro-Trump organisation while company backer Thiel is known to be a Trump supporter.

Trump’s agenda to build a wall on the southern border of the US to prevent illegal border crossings from Mexico was a topic of conflict during his tenure as president. Instead of a physical barrier, a layer of digital surveillance wall is being built along several parts of the border.

In July 2020, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration awarded Anduril a five-year contract to deploy solar-powered surveillance towers, which were able to autonomously identify humans, animals and vehicles. The surveillance towers would then send the imagery to the US Border Patrol to make final determination on the item detected. 

Reports from the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) showed autonomous surveillance towers were piloted in early 2018 with four towers in the San Diego Border Patrol Sector and a further 200 towers were on course to be deployed by 2022.

Veronica Escobar, a member of the US Congress, expressed concern over the CBP’s “digital border wall” in an August 2022 letter to House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Escobar called the surveillance technology “inhumane” and cited a study that pointed to border surveillance technologies being “a significant factor contributing to increased death rates among migrants crossing the border”.

According to the letter, the CBP received over $743m for border surveillance technologies between fiscal years 2017 and 2020, while the CBP’s border surveillance tech budget for fiscal 2022 was “one of the largest fiscal year amounts in recent years” at $425m.

“It is time we stop issuing a blank check to CBP to purchase technologies that jeopardise the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties of our communities,” wrote Escobar.

FAQs

Why did Palmer Luckey make Oculus?

Luckey shared his interest for “making things” in a 2013 interview with Eurogamer:

“I’m a self-taught engineer, a hacker, a maker, an electronics enthusiast. I'm from Long Beach, California. I like making things.”

How much is Oculus worth as a company?

Facebook bought Oculus VR in March 2014 in a cash-plus-stock deal worth about $2bn.

Is Palmer Luckey a billionaire?

Palmer Luckey’s net worth was reported to be $1.3bn, as of July 2022, according to Forbes.

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