We talked to Kynan Eng, CEO at iniVation about the combination of hardware and software to power high-performance and efficient vision systems and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Kynan Eng: Quite OK, all things considered; thanks for asking. We have family scattered all over the world, so it is a bit strange to know that visiting anyone is physically impossible right now. My family felt some of the effects of SARS back in 2002, so that experience has probably helped to manage expectations for the current pandemic.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you joined iniVation.
Kynan Eng: I was born in Melbourne, Australia, but have lived in Switzerland for half my life. From a young age, I had a strong interest in artificial intelligence and robotics. It was probably not a surprise that I obtained degrees in computer science, mechanical engineering, and later computational neuroscience. Another childhood interest was in early computer games. These interests combined in my research work on intelligent active environments, the neuroscience of virtual reality, and applications to neurorehabilitation of patients with stroke, cerebral palsy, and other neurological disorders.
Although I always had an inclination towards research, I was also interested in commercial activities. When I was 19 I co-founded my first company, which created computer software for scoring sporting events and urban asset management. I also worked at a telecommunications management software firm. Then I worked for several years as a gas turbine mechanical design engineer, before returning to academia for my Ph.D. Since then, I have co-founded four other companies, together with colleagues from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. These activities gradually occupied all of my time, to the point where I had to shut down my research group. My full-time job now is CEO of iniVation, which produces high-speed neuromorphic intelligent vision systems for robotics, aerospace, AR/VR, and automotive applications.
How does iniVation innovate?
Kynan Eng: As a high-tech company involved in both hardware and software, operating in global markets, we are highly dependent on intellectual property. This IP portfolio consists of both patent license agreements with our research partners, and patents that we have generated on our own. We are in a constant innovation race with research groups and some of the world’s largest companies. Keeping ahead in this race depends on our ability to attract top talent and to spend money wisely, in which we have so far been quite successful.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business and how are you coping?
Kynan Eng: The current coronavirus pandemic has had both positive and negative effects on us. On the positive side, we are in a long-term, high-tech industry involved in the automation of everything. This is a good business to be in during a pandemic. As a company, we have also learned to work remotely, which in some ways has made us even more efficient in our communication.
The negatives of the pandemic have been somewhat mixed. Business travel is now zero, but that can actually be an advantage for a small startup because larger competitors must also work under the same restrictions. Whether you are large or small, you still only get one LinkedIn profile, and things such as spending on Facebook ads don’t really matter in our business. Several customers entered a period of crisis planning during 2020, making them more cautious in engaging with us, but the overall effect is hard to measure. In the end, our 2020 sales still grew strongly. Overall, I would say that things could have been much worse for us, and I feel for those in other industries that have not been so lucky.
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Kynan Eng: As soon as it was clear that the first wave of lockdowns was going to occur, we made contingency plans. What if whole industries shut down, and all investors stopped investing? Could we survive until the next year, and what choices would be needed – at what time – to make that happen? Thankfully, none of these scenarios have come true yet, but we are still very careful. Again, it bears repeating that we have been very lucky compared with startups in other industries. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that ongoing disaster planning is critical, and you just hope that you never have to execute those plans.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Kynan Eng: Our financial tools are simple: our cloud-based accounting system, plus Excel to run what-if scenarios. On the customer side, we naturally shifted our marketing focus from in-person events to a combination of social media, email, and the ubiquitous video conferences. For our internal operations, we use internal chats combined with calls and online project planning tools. At the same time, our team grew in size during the pandemic, so we had already begun to shift from an informal in-person updating strategy to a structured set of regular online meetings.
Maintaining a feeling of personal contact within a remote-working company is the hardest thing to plan. Our experience is that events such as planned video lunches simply don’t work. What does seem to work better is a collection of small individual actions by everyone on a daily basis. It can be just a one-to-one check-in question, a quick phone call to sync on a topic, or an internal post about an amusing or interesting topic of the day. A little bit of unplanned interaction goes a long way.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Kynan Eng: Our competitors are a mix of very small startups and some of the world’s largest corporations. Some of the players in the game include Intel, IBM, and Sony. One of our investment and cooperation partners is Samsung; we also have other well-known partners in other application areas. Although we do not have the immense resources of some of our partners and major competitors, we are able to make decisions much faster, with our top-level team that is there for more than just a 9-to-5 job.
Another advantage we have is our deep roots in neuromorphic engineering. I have been involved in the field for 20 years when it was still possible to know almost everyone. My co-founders were among the original pioneers of the field, and have been at it for over 30 years. From the beginning of the commercialization process, we have consciously focused on sustainable growth and fostering an open community of users and researchers. Our view is that, if our technology is to change the world, then there will be space for many players. Ultimately, it is our depth of product knowledge, combined with our extensive research and industry network, that makes us unique.
Your final thoughts?
Kynan Eng: I feel very fortunate to be entrusted with leading a strong team in an industry that is just starting to take off. I have been lucky to watch the field grow from a few scientists with big dreams and bigger imaginations, into something that is on the development roadmaps of the world’s biggest technology companies. With a lot of luck, we hope that we will be able to help create a future of fast, efficient, intelligent systems that can truly see and understand the world.
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