For this Deep Tech Dive, I interviewed Megan Gray. Diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 23, she was able to fight through her struggle and create a solution to a problem that afflicts more than 3 million people in the US. Moment AI, an autonomous vehicle (AV) company, uses physiological data + traffic data not only to prevent accidents but to better the driver’s experience.
- Epilepsy affects more than 3 million people in the US, which also inhibits their ability to drive. Self-driving cars may be the only viable way to allow people with such afflictions to drive safely on the road.
- Technological progress won’t wait for the US. We can either get ahead of it or be left behind.
- 2032 may be the year when AVs become commercially viable for the common person.
- Obviously, women founders have it tougher than men, but it’s boldness to persevere through historical strife that equips women to be great leaders. Soon enough, they will run the world.
“Don’t worry about bringing your seat to the table, build your own table, and make them come to you.”
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell me about yourself and your background?
I come from a family of 6 kids, all raised by a single mom. Our mom taught every one of us to work hard, so all of us ended up graduating with a bachelor’s or more. She used to take me to the library and help me build my science projects.
In my sophomore year of college, at the University of Kentucky (UK), I got an internship at Google. At Google, I was part of the product specialist team working on Google Chromebook 3G, the pre-launch of Google +, and Google TV.
What led you to start FirstTime Innovation?
One day, on my way back from a business trip, right before graduation. I experienced an epileptic attack, which led to the doctors telling me I couldn’t drive anymore. I tried utilizing Uber and Lyft as much as possible but the expense is impractical. So since I was already working with the solar car team at UK, I decided to be a rebel and create my technology so that I could drive.
I can control my seizure with medicine and I’m able to live by myself but that’s not the case for everybody that has epilepsy, so this problem inspired me to create FirstTime.
What were you building at FirstTime and what went wrong?
I built FirstTime in my living room and we ended up being semifinalists at TechStars, Y Combinator, and Microsoft’s venture arm M12. I got in contact with a company from Portugal to hook biosensors to the stereo so it could be able to monitor my brain and heart. We also had this auto special fabric that acts like electrodes. I sewed that fabric around the wheel and created an app to monitor my heart and brain.
I didn’t have any friends or family that could put up funding. A problem that a lot of African American entrepreneurs face. Most of us don’t necessarily have a family member that can take out a mortgage on their house. Even though we had a great idea, I didn’t feel like we had enough capital to build an MVP.
How did FirstTime Innovation lead you to start Moment AI?
Going through the process the first time was pivotal. I stayed in touch with one of the managing directors from Techstars and he showed me the ropes. He instructed me on what other companies we’re doing, my first pitch, and introduced me to people from Silicon Valley.
After a poker tournament in Atlantic City, I was reading about a German engineer who had created a cat door that would allow his cat to go in and out of the house using its face. So I thought, “I should put facial recognition into a vehicle!”
I used my poker winnings to fund product development. Every visit to the casino I would win ~$1,000 or more, then go back home and order whatever I needed. Either parts for my product or anything so investors would take me seriously, including business cards and hiring my co-founder, Jacob Sutton.
With just a Raspberry Pi, I developed the first proof of concept for Moment AI and simulated myself having a seizure.
Any major milestones hit for Moment AI?
Within 2 months of incorporation, we were accepted into the NVIDIA startup program and they invited me to speak at the capital alongside a California senator in front of a crowd of engineers. Next, I was invited to Launch with Jason Calacanis, which led to a call from a Softbank VP. Now, we are backed by Softbank’s Vision Fund with a team of 9 to 10 engineers.
Recently, I just became the first woman to receive an AI transportation research contract with George Washington University (GWU), one of the top transportation labs in the country. We operate in stealth mode, so a lot of what we build is not in public, but General Motors is sending our lab’s vehicles over the summer.
Most of the milestones I have achieved have been through word of mouth and I am extremely grateful for all the support on social media.
What external forces can push you forward?
Cruise, another AV company, was just granted permission to participate in California’s 1st pilot program to provide driverless ride services to the public, but we need a lot more focus on AVs as a country.
Europe and China are moving faster because they allow for innovation within deep tech. Whether you’re pro-AI or against it, the technology will continue to progress. I do believe there needs to be a body of regulation, but that can’t work state by state. It needs to be monitored under federal regulation. For instance, we can test Level 5 (Fully automated w/o requiring a driver) AVs within DC and VA, but not in Maryland, which doesn’t make sense since they are right next to each other.
We need a larger push for technological innovation from Congress and state legislators.
How are you driving ethical thinking into your IP?
I think there needs to be a board of regulation over AI similar to what we had with NATO. However, I worry because congress fumbled with just Facebook and Twitter. So we can’t just have a committee of people who hardly understand Deep Tech and AI, the right people have to be involved.
However, we at Moment A, are eliminating AI bias. I’m an African American female, but my co-founder is a white male. Initially, I wrote the codebase till he took over as the CTO, and one day, after some minor changes our technology only recognized his face, as a white male. This also tells me facial recognition hasn’t been well thought out for other genders and races, it’s been rushed. There are not enough sets of data being taken with diverse people. So it is our responsibility to fix that and to make sure that we’re not putting people’s lives in danger.
We’re aiming to be the first to market but still want to make sure we build it right. That our technology goes through the right analytical process, does its job, and doesn’t discriminate against specific ethnic groups. This also means that we encrypt whatever data we collect.
We have an upcoming project in which we will be using 300 different individuals with as many different ethnic and gender groups as possible.
Do you believe AI is ready to make life or death decisions?
I believe there should be a person acting as an intermediary between AI. It’s still too early for AI to be making life or death decisions w/o human permission.
When I look at some of these companies, I feel as if they’re rushing the use of AI. Everybody wants to be the next unicorn but as Jai Malik,
“By not thinking about ethics early on, startups put themselves at risk of losing trust from large companies they work with and generate revenue from.”
I love AVs, and there are already companies that could be level 5 like Tesla but they aren’t allowed because the government still requires a driver behind the wheel. I don’t think AVs should be widely adopted till the common American can have basic AI safety features in their vehicle.
When do you think AI will be strong enough to pick up these human anomalies and edge cases?
I see this happening in 2026. The reason why is because big companies like Tesla, can use companies like mine, Moment AI as subcontractors looking to be ready for these anomalies. That will allow us to increase the accuracy as we continue to test.
However, I still don’t think it will be legal to cross the country using advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) the entire time. As far as technological progression there will be AVs that can do this, but they may not be commercially viable yet for the common man.
When do you think self-driving cars will become commercially viable?
In 2032, because the average American uses a vehicle for 12 years and the economic wealth gap expanded severely during the pandemic. So I think it will take 12 years from 2020 when the common person can afford a vehicle with self-driving capabilities.
AVs won’t work too well if there are just a few of them on the road. For instance, let’s say 3 cars are driving on the highway, one is a 2000 Nissan on the far left lane, a level 5 AV in the middle, and a semi-autonomous level 3 car on the right. As they are driving, the driver in the 2000 Nissan is about to miss the exit so he/she pulls over 2 lanes immediately, and there’s a chance that the level 5 AV doesn’t pick that up.
There has been a government initiative to help get most Americans at least in a Level 4 vehicle. But again, that might be an expensive bill and not of top priority.
I don’t think we will see level 5 AVs this decade, but I do think we’re gonna increase the level 3 range. Where your car’s AI can detect when you’re feeling drowsy and suggest a break, those types of things.
Any inspiring words or recommendations for other women founders?
Don’t worry about bringing your seat to the table, build your own table, and make them come to you. I tend to be the only woman speaking at a lot of conferences or events about AVs. So you have to be ready to jump through hoops and hurdles 3X as much as men. But we need to do that, to pave the way for the next generation of young women!
Currently, there are a lot of women working on great things but people always feel as if we should use our brains towards retail beauty products like makeup or things of that sort. And that’s not the case. Remember, women have paved the way through history but we didn’t amass any recognition till 30–40 years ago. There have always been women in science.