The long list of companies vying to build President Donald Trump’s “great, great wall on our southern border” includes some surprising contenders.
Estimates vary, but roughly 10 percent of the 600-plus firms that submitted bids identify as Hispanic-owned. Another 20 percent list a female CEO. And of the two Santa Clara County companies that expressed an interest in fortifying the border barrier, at least one—Sunnyvale-based Quanergy Systems—is immigrant-owned.
Given the president’s history of disparaging immigrants, refugees, women and Latinos, it might seem counterintuitive to see these same people hoping to profit off of Trump’s controversial pet project. Ironically, because minority-run businesses get special consideration for government contracts, the odds lean in their favor.
Quanergy Systems CEO Louay Eldada, a serial entrepreneur who hails from Lebanon, billed his plan to beef up the border with a laser-equipped “smart fence” as a way to appease people on both sides of the national security debate.
“Our high-tech smart fence brings the best of Silicon Valley innovation to the border,” Eldada wrote in an email to San Jose Inside. “[It] addresses the fundamental issues that concern folks on both sides of the wall discussion. A secure border and respect to our neighbors can coexist.”
Observers have called Quanergy—a Silicon Valley “unicorn” with a $1.6 billion valuation—one of the more unusual applicants on the border wall list. The Sunnyvale startup raised $90 million last year to make laser vision devices for three-dimensional imaging around cars, and counts Samsung, Delphi Automotive, Hyundai, Daimler and Renault-Nissan among its investors and partners. According to Axios, the South Bay firm appears to be one of just two VC-backed startups to make a border wall pitch.
So why would a fledgling startup, one that Forbes called “a rising star in the automotive industry,” venture into the politically charged field of border security? Eldada said it’s a logical application for Quanergy’s lidar technology—a detection system that uses lasers the way radar uses radio waves and sonar uses sound.
“Our focus has always been on four application pillars: transportation, security, industrial automation, and 3-D terrestrial and aerial mapping,” Eldada said. “The border wall is a natural fit for our security solutions.”
The way Eldada envisions it, the border wall would have a far-reaching horizontal and vertical detection range minus the unappealing aesthetics or nativist symbolism of a massive physical barrier.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued two requests for proposals: one for a concrete barrier and one for “other border wall.” Quanergy submitted its smart-fence proposal to the “other” category.
“A physical wall should be defined,” Eldada said. “Most people think of a concrete wall when talking about a physical wall—that is the wall that is disliked by people who are vocal about their opposition to the wall. Those who oppose the wall see it as an eyesore, and they want to make sure we are respectful of our neighbors.”
Though Trump insists that he wants a wall and not a fence, Eldada said adequate border barriers could consist of a basic chain link fence, which already exists along the southern border. Adding lidar sensors would simply make it more effective, he said. Depending on one’s views on immigration and border security, that’s either frightening or reassuring.
“We use laser-based lidar sensors that have a 500-foot reach on the ground and in the air, day and night, rain or shine,” Eldada said. “The sensors come with artificial intelligence software that accurately detect, classify and track humans, cars, et cetera, up to 500 feet away, regardless of lighting conditions. Likewise, the sensors can detect objects being thrown or flown over the border. In all cases, the solution provides to the proper authorities alerts and tracking information for interception.”
Many top government contractors have shied away from submitting border wall bids. While some may wrestle with making a buck off of a widely considered expression of xenophobia, others have more pragmatic concerns. Public backlash could undermine future business for anyone linked to the project and may already have taken a toll. Lawmakers in California have proposed boycotting companies that express an interest in building the wall—whether or not they end up winning a contract.
But some people submitted plans clearly in protest of Trump’s vision for a low-tech concrete barrier. A concept called Otra Nation suggests building a hyper-loop between the U.S. and Mexico to promote travel between the two countries. Another from Pittsburgh artist Jennifer Meridian calls for a semi-continuous wall of 10 million pipe organs, “offering border-crossers the opportunity to walk straight through—but not before playing a ditty of their choosing.”
Meridian, who, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, called the border “preposterous for so many reasons” also proposed a wall of hammocks and refugee gravestones for passersby to contemplate the “danger, terror and horror they must have faced in trying to cross.”