First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Kurt Busch: We’re doing okay. Everyone is safe, and we are extremely grateful for that. It took a while to get adjusted to the stay-at-home mandate, but we’ve grown closer as family. The hardest part is having three kids, all at different schools, and each with a different remote learning program.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Syntiant
Kurt Busch: I’ve spent the last three decades working within the chip and IoT sectors, from startups to running a publicly-traded company. I connected with an amazing team of co-founders that were experts in machine learning, chip design, and software development to build a new kind of processor that will make deep learning as pervasive as general computing is today. The idea for Syntiant’s first product came after a conversation I had with my son Vinny, who at the time was using his voice to send text messages before he was proficient at reading or typing. It seemed so intuitive for him even at an early age. That’s when we realized the voice was going to be the new user interface between people and their devices, replacing touchscreens and tactile switches and buttons. But while AI edge computing essentially made devices smarter, there was no real solution to avoid the excessive power dissipation caused by processing and moving data.
AI was something that happened in the cloud with an Internet connection. We wanted to make it something that was “always-on” and in the device itself. That’s when we started from scratch with a clean sheet design that optimizes silicon and deep learning models together. Today, our chip architecture is embedded into all kinds of edge devices, from smartphones and smart speakers to earbuds and laptops, enabling a low-power, high-accuracy voice interface without requiring a cloud connection.
How does Syntiant innovate?
Kurt Busch: The key is a close collaboration between the deep learning engineers and the chip designers. We don’t have separate software and hardware departments sitting in different parts of the office. All the engineers are interleaved together to create a constant exchange of ideas to build specialized products optimized for the needs of pervasive artificial intelligence. This has led to a technology that delivers low-latency, real-time inference for edge devices, from keyword spotting to wake word detection to command words. Our low power chip technology is always-on with little to no impact on battery life, listening for specific wake words or command words, essentially serving as an always-on gate-keeper, ensuring privacy and security. We’re also much more than semiconductors, collecting and training our own data, offering a complete solution that fits any size customer.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Kurt Busch: I am extremely grateful that we work in an industry that can adapt to telecommuting very well. At the start of the pandemic and in little time, our teams were set-up to work from home, our labs were automated for remote testing, and the company was back at work. We also have been seeing an uptick in demand for our technology as more consumers are opting to use their voices to control a variety of smart devices, rather than using touch screens and other tactile interfaces.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Kurt Busch: Building a startup from idea to shipping millions of products is full of difficult choices. We are fortunate that we have a very experienced team, which does not mean we don’t make mistakes, but it does mean we quickly recover from them. The most important lesson I have learned is that difficult choices need to be made and executed quickly. Managing a startup is all about getting to the next fundable event within the cash runway that is available. Delays just shorten the runway, and too many delays will make the choices irrelevant as you can run out of cash before you see the outcome of any of the options. Choose as quickly as possible, execute on it, correct as needed.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Syntiant in the future?
Kurt Busch: As an individual, I work out as often as possible. My local CrossFit gym is offering socially distanced classes that really help. As a company, we’ve been holding weekly virtual cocktail hours that have been a lot of fun and a big stress reliever for many of us. We have also engaged with an external company to offer wellness activities that have include cooking classes, meditating, and fitness challenges. As we return to the office, we have followed guidance from local, state, and federal authorities to ensure the health and safety of all our employees.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Kurt Busch: We chose to go after an application segment that we call “always-on machine learning for battery-powered devices.” We are addressing this with technology that is approximately 100x lower power than the existing solutions. We believe no other company is playing at this power level in this market. This has been key to our success as a startup as we are offering a solution where there is not an incumbent or any direct competitors. The ugly truth is that no company wants to risk buying key components from startups, so for a new company to be successful, it must offer a solution that you cannot get anywhere else. Not only that, but the startup also needs to have a value proposition that can deliver orders of magnitude more efficiently to ship the selection away from an incumbent. That has been the Syntiant approach, and we think it is working out quite well.
Your final thoughts?
Kurt Busch: In these uncertain times, we try to stay focused and follow our three core principles, which are: doing only what is exceptional; showing respect to all who we deal with; and giving gratitude for those that help. This philosophy has helped us get where we are today, and our employees exemplify all of these traits in the work they are doing day in and day out.