Q&A with IRYStec Q&A with IRYStec

Q&A with IRYStec

ID interviews Tara Akhavan, Simon Morris, and Afsoon Soudi, the principals of IRYStec, a Montreal-based startup that makes Perceptual Display Platform (PDP), an embedded software technology that adjusts the characteristics of content displayed on devices to match how a viewer’s eyes see it in different ambient light. IRYStec was founded by Akhavan and Soudi in Montreal, and closed its Series A financing round in June 2016.

Conducted by Jenny Donelan

Tara Akhavan is co-founder and CTO of IRYStec. She has a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in artificial intelligence. She is currently finishing her Ph.D. in image processing and computer vision at Vienna University of Technology in Austria. Akhavan is the vice chair for marketing for the Society for Information Display. Simon Morris joined IRYStec as CEO in early 2016. He was formerly CEO of CogniVue Corporation. He has also served as director at BDC Venture Capital and, from 1995 to 2006, in various senior leadership positions with Texas Instruments and Atsana Semiconductor. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the Royal Military College of Canada, and is a member of the Professional Engineers of Ontario. Afsoon Soudi is co-founder and vice president of R&D for IRYStec. Prior to founding IRYStec, Soudi led multiple research groups. She has a Ph.D. in physics from Washington State University. She has also been actively involved in various societies, including SPIE, and in promoting women in science and technology.


ID:    IRYStec’s main product is called Perceptual Display Technology. Can you describe what that is?
Tara Akhavan:
Perception is a missing link in the display industry. Display settings are not a guarantee of what we will perceive, because there are a lot of other influences on how we see information. The biggest one is ambient lighting. What you render on a display is not necessarily going to be perceived the same way when you are in a really dark environment as when you are walking in a park in the daytime. You need to change the way you are rendering according to the way eyes work in different ambient lighting. Another aspect is the personalized aspect of perception. Each of us has a unique visual system. We see stuff differently, according to age, gender, and background culture. This all affects the way we perceive information. You personalize it to make sure that what you perceive is what you were supposed to.

ID:    How does your technology do that?
TA:   We have close collaborations with a lot of physiologists and psychologists who understand how the eye works and reacts with regard to aging, ambient light change [etc.], and we model and compensate [accordingly]. So before content is shown in a dark room, the device knows you are in a dark room and renders that content differently.

ID:    So at this point the device is determining what the ambient light in the room is.
TA:   Yes. But in terms of the personalization, we need to collect the data – the age and the gender of the user. After that a tiny calibration is made and the content is rendered, based on that.

ID:    Is this done on the fly or is this something the user needs to enter ahead of time?
TA:   The ambient process is done on the fly, because the ambience can change pretty rapidly. The calibration for personalization is something you would do just once.
Simon Morris:
The innovation is basically two forms: figuring out the algorithms and then figuring out a lightweight implementation for them, on a device. This process is pretty heavy computationally and often has to be in hardware, which is the approach that some of the competition has taken.
TA:   Our product is pure software. That is the magic.

ID:    The algorithms are embedded in software in a particular device?
TA:   They would be embedded in an OS.
SM:   This could also be integrated in an app, like YouTube or Facebook, but the most effective implementation is really at the OS layer, where all apps can benefit from IRYStec technology.

ID:    What applications do you foresee? And devices?
SM:   The need is greatest where a display is personalized – a smartphone, obviously, or a tablet. Any display that is moving while you are using it, from bright light to darkness. Automotive is another application. Especially motorcycles, which are going through the same transformation as cars, with the instrumentation cluster turning into a display.
TA:   Only in movie theaters do you have control over the ambiance. Everywhere else you have displays where the environment is not controlled anymore. It’s very dynamic. And while it is great to go from LED to OLED to quantum dot, the software side of the game needs to catch up.

ID:    What stage is the technology at right now? For example, do you have partners?
SM:   Well, we call customers, customers! We are working with a dozen or so handset manufacturers, of which more than half a dozen are in detailed evaluation of our smartphone technology. We’ve brought one phone manufacturer to preproduction. We expect sometime in the second quarter to be in a production handset. And in automotive we signed our first actual licensing agreement and we’re developing and supporting the software for what’s called driver information systems. There’s a slightly different use case for automotive, where safety is paramount, and there are some standards around contrast, so you have to maintain certain contrast levels. We are getting a taste of the VR market. We’re trying to get a better feel for the exact use case for VR, but it’s not the major focus right now.

ID:    Can you describe your business journey so far? How did you get started, and what kinds of successes and failures have you had leading up to this point?
TA:   We started 2.5 years ago in an incubator in Montreal with the original idea of just compensating for darkness, for night vision. My background is computer vision. I moved from Vienna, Austria, to Montreal to start this because of the funding available in the incubator. I discovered my brilliant co-founder [Afsoon Soudi] here in Montreal. I’ll let Afsoon explain the challenges!
Afsoon Soudi:
In 2014 there was this hype in Silicon Valley [for startups] but not so much in Canada. It was not that easy to get funding as a technical founder. But things were starting in Montreal, and TandemLaunch helped us start the process. The company started with just us and a couple of interns and a few professors and advisors from Europe and the US.
          The biggest challenge initially was to find the right market fit for the technology we had. We had a lot of discussions with brilliant people to learn more about the business side and find the right way to position our product. That was how, later on, we came across Simon. He had the experience of delivering products in the automotive market and with very similar processes to how we wanted our product positioned. Having his complementary experience definitely added a lot of value and made our second round of financing possible in June 2016.
TA:   Raising money, building a team, attracting professors to work with you – all of those are challenging for every startup. But on top of that we were two women co-founders. We went to Display Week together: Our first event was the I-Zone at Display Week. When people would visit our booth from other, bigger companies they were always asking us, who are the technical people, and we were like, that is us! Those were extra challenges and we have always faced them, but we have been so lucky to get people involved, like our CEO, and our investors, who support us.
SM:   It’s a challenge and I can see it happening. The first time I joined them [Tara and Afsoon] at CES, we had a booth in the startup area. Tara, Afsoon, and I were all dressed nicely, business-like. Inevitably everyone would come to me to ask me the technical questions.

ID:    Do you have advice to offer people and especially young women going into the sorts of areas that you’re in? Can you offer some encouragement?
TA:    I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. If you are a technologist and you are a woman, even at school you are a minority. You are always facing this. But it gets more real when you start working in the industry. I think the answer is ... well, I have seen other people [in these situations] get angry or get offended. But you need to push through and surround yourselves with people who support you, like our investors and our CEO. They trust us and believe in us and we build on top of that. We might have a harder time getting there but we just push and don’t give up.
AS:    Nothing in life comes easy or at no cost. It’s not gonna be all roses and rainbows and it can be hard. There are mornings when everything is great and then by the afternoon it’s just horrible and bad. It’s great if you can find partners like Tara and Simon who can get you through those difficult times. It’s very important to have the right people to start with and build the culture of the company on that. Startups are difficult. Ninety percent of them fail in the first year, and another 70 to 80 percent fail in the second year, so it is a difficult thing to do. You have to push through it and not get discouraged.

ID:    You’ve been going through this admittedly challenging stage, but soon you’re not going to be an up-and-coming company selling a possible product; you’re going to be a company selling a product. How does that look to you and inform your hiring practices and your involvement with the day-to-day business?
TA:    The scaling is a real challenge. You have to start from the right place. We had this experience going from fewer than five people to more than 20 people. That was a big jump for us. You have to have the right strategies. Hire the right people with the right expertise and keep them motivated.
SM    It’s a different skill set to deal with the various levels of the company as it grows. There actually aren’t a lot of people who stay from a startup position to the very end. Mark Zuckerberg is one of them. As founders you’ve always got to be aware of your limits, strengths, and weaknesses, and then complement yourself with the right people as you move through the stages of growing the business. I think founders who have that perspective can grow nicely with the business.
TA:    One thing about hiring that I’m very proud of is that we have one of the most diverse teams in terms of both technology background and also male/female balance. We’re at almost 50/50 male/female, which adds a lot to the dynamics and health of
our startup. We are from seven different countries.
          [Skill] diversity is also a key point. A lot of the big companies are slow, and we are faster because we have a very diverse team. And that is since day one. When I joined I had a good software background, but I was always looking for complementary skill sets. Hardware is one of those, and that’s where Afsoon, my co-founder, came in. And we had a great tech advisory board that would help us put together the bits and pieces.
SM:    Diversity also concerns personality. There’s a tendency to recruit people with similar personalities to yours. It’s hard to avoid that and find instead someone who is going to complement and strengthen your team. You want to bring in people who are not necessarily going to agree with you – the ones who will critique you the most. Sometimes this leads to heated discussions, but it’s healthier for the company. There’s a tendency with startups to have everyone who thinks alike. And that’s
TA:    I also wanted to add that from the beginning, SID has had a great impact on how we put our business together. I-Zone was our first outing as a company. Our first investor is now president elect. We were introduced to SID early on. The short courses, and all the Display Week events, helped us find the basic things we were looking for. And the I-Zone is great for start-ups. So we kind of have this feeling of semi-ownership, semi-gratitude toward SID.  •


Jenny Donelan is the editor in chief of Information Display Magazine.  She can be reached at jdonelan@pcm411.com.