ID Interviews Yiorgos Bontzios, CEO of Fieldscale
Yiorgos Bontzios sets the vision and long-term targets for Fieldscale, a company based in Thessaloniki, Greece, that makes simulation software for touch-panel developers. Bontzios has a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the Aristotle University of Greece. He is the principal inventor of one patent, and has published over 20 papers and 4 books.
Conducted by Jenny Donelan
Can you tell us a little about Fieldscale and how you got started?
My cofounder, George Bouzianas, and I met while we were working on our Ph.D.s seven years ago. We were both using simulation software for our theses, and we recognized two big problems with it: the speed – sometimes it was so slow – and the complexity. All the engineering simulation software out there at the time was so hard to use. You needed to be an expert, a scientist, to use it.
We decided to do something about that. We decided to create simulation software products from scratch that were faster and easier to use. So we founded the company in 2015, and we received our first funding from a local venture capitalist. Since then, our mission has been to democratize simulation software and make it mainstream. We are now a company of 30-plus people.
ID: How did you and your partner arrive at the idea of simulation software specifically for touch technology?
YB: We started exploring the market to find the highest growth potential. And after looking at many different market segments, we realized touch sensors was an industry where the pain was very big, and the growth opportunities were even bigger. The starting point was our background in simulation software, and then the market need led us to apply that background to touch.
The product that we introduced to the market in 2016 was called SENSE (Fig. 1). This software targets the touch-sensor industry and specifically the capacitive-sensor industry. The benefit that we give to our customers is that we can help them reduce product development cycles and, at the end of the day, ship products faster to market.
Fig. 1: This screenshot of the SENSE simulation software shows a gloved pointer placed above a central electrode node.
ID: So SENSE can reduce the number of physical prototypes a developer has to create?
YB: Exactly. It depends on the product, but a company might normally make five, six, seven, or even more iterations before they are sure that a product will work. These prototypes cost a tremendous amount of time and a huge amount of money – many months of work, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. In some industries, this is something that can make or break the business.
ID: Do you do a lot of customization with your partners? That is, do they ask you to make certain changes to the software?
YB: We get many requests from customers and potential customers. This is always the case with software. And it is actually the greatest feedback you can get. Our goal is to deliver the best user experience and make the lives of our customers easier. So every time we have a request, we look at it from many angles: Will the request add a new feature? Will it add value? Can we include that feature in the product without affecting the user experience?
ID: Do you sometimes get requests that are not that valuable to implement on a one-off basis?
YB: It definitely depends on the case. Sometimes we have to educate the customer about what works best for them. After all, we are showing new customers something they haven’t seen before. Sometimes they may not realize how a feature can add value for them. At that point, we guide them. But we are always striving to do what is best for customers and what makes life easier for them.
ID: What’s the tech scene like in Greece?
YB: The startup scene is growing and evolving. We are moving into phase 2.0 of the startup scene, so to speak. We have had some great successes, like the Taxibeat app that was acquired by Daimler for 43 million euros. And companies like Workable.
ID: What are some of the lessons you have learned as a startup?
YB: It’s really hard. When I did my Ph.D., I said wow, this is really hard, but trust me, it’s nothing like starting a new business. In a new business you are always doing three things at the same time. And you learn a different lesson – something new – every day. When we look back at how we did things one or two years ago, we laugh at our ourselves. If we project into the future, I’m pretty sure that years from now we will laugh at what we are doing now.
ID: What was your biggest challenge along the way?
YB: There were many, but the biggest challenge, if I had to name one would be translating the idea we began with into the product that it is today. I always think of an interview I saw with Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle. He said that everybody has good ideas but translating those good ideas into great products is unbelievably hard.
I remember clearly one day when our entire team was gathered in the meeting room. It was a little bit hot that day, when we drew the very first mockup of SENSE. We didn’t know what it would look like one or two years from that point, but from the beginning our goal was to create a simulation software that followed two simple criteria: it had to be 10 times faster than anything else and 10 times easier to use than anything else out there. So we set the bar high – maybe too high – and right after that we realized how difficult it was going to be. We had to have continuous refinements and iterations of the software before we even began to get close to that goal. And there were times when that initial goal seemed unrealistic. That’s the biggest challenge – when you start executing and you see how difficult it is. It’s very hard to stay focused on your vision. But you know what? If you have kids, you can appreciate this: my kids are both troublemakers and they do things that drive me crazy. But when I see the smiles on their faces, I forget everything else. It’s the same with your product. The moment you hear your customers say things like, “Your software saved me from doing so much work,” or, “It saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars,” you forget the hard times, and the struggles. There’s nothing like the smile on the face of your customer.
ID: How did you develop your simulation engine in such a short amount of time?
YB: Even though SENSE was created in less than two years, a lot of the preliminary work had been done years before [when we were in graduate school.] But in order to develop an entirely new product, with so many specs to consider, you need two things: a very strong, dedicated team and a good sense of prioritization. For the team, Fieldscale recruited professionals with diverse levels of expertise: electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, software development.
After that, we established a plan of action. We employed principles of Agile software development, forming cross-functional teams and delivering the product in small, incremental steps. Instead of adding a lot of features we were unsure about (in terms of whether they would be valuable to our target customers), we decided to create a core version of our product and throw it into the market for early feedback. That’s where SENSE version 1 was launched: right in the middle of Display Week 2016. And that is how we managed to attract our first customers. Those customers became the ones that helped us shape our product to the version that it is today.
ID: How did you validate the product?
YB: Our technology was validated against existing literature (published research) as well as through confidential, under-NDA data from our customers. We are proud that we have been able to develop smart algorithms that provide accurate results for many different touch designs and applications – automotive, industrial, smartphones, etc.
ID: How did you achieve such a significant increase in speed?
YB: Regarding the technology, our fast and robust EM (electromagnetic field) solvers are our big advantage against the competition. Leveraging the Boundary Element Method, we combine innovative methods and algorithms that take advantage of multiple cores and parallelized simulation processes, which speeds operations. We are proud to say that our solver is currently under patent.
Apart from that, our biggest innovation is that we simplified and automated the most tedious part of the work, which is the pre-processing: setting up the geometry of a product, as well as the parameters for simulation, and – the most demanding part – the meshing process. With SENSE, the user doesn’t need to do any of these operations manually. Everything is automated.
ID: Since you work with panel developers, I have to ask if you are seeing any industry trends that you can share with us.
YB: Generally speaking, we believe that in the next 5 to 10 years we will have two interfaces – touch and voice. And on our part we are committed to lead the innovation in touch. Two years ago at Display Week, the keynote speaker from Microsoft [Steven Bathiche] spoke about Surface and how the company’s vision of the future is the touch screen everywhere. That is a definite trend.
Large screens are also a trend. And a very large market driver is the autonomous car of the future. Once you remove the steering wheel, you need to rethink the user interface. The car of the future, at least from what we have seen, will use touch and voice commands, and you will see touch controls everywhere. For example, you won’t open your window with mechanical devices anymore. You will slide your finger along a panel in the direction you want the window to go – up or down.
A big difference between touch panels in the car and most of the touch screens we have at the moment is that a lot of them are curved to follow the form factor of the car, and this is easier said than done, because the material used for touch screens is most often indium tin oxide (ITO), which can’t be curved. ITO is also not the best material for designing very large screens because of some technical limitations, so right now the touch industry needs to be working with new materials like metal mesh or nanowires etc. This means that all these products will need to be redesigned. Large screens, curved screens, bezel-less screens – all these trends follow different form factors and will need to be redesigned.
ID: So that’s good news for you!
YB: It’s actually music to my ears! We watch these trends, and move new capabilities into our products so we can fulfill customer requests, such as support of metal mesh.
ID: What is next for Fieldscale?
YB: I can say that our move toward simplification [in terms of simulation software] has been embraced. So we are planning to introduce a range of new products that follow the same concepts of simplification. As as we dig deeper into the touch-screen market and the supply chain in general, we realize that IC makers, OEMs, materials suppliers – every single player – has painful experiences related to R&D, production, etc. So having come up a with a pain reliever for touch-panel production, it’s possible that we might be able to fix all this pain in the supply chain in a very unified way.
ID: Any last thoughts?
YB: I would say always, always do things that you love. I quote what Elon Musk said about how running a startup is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. It’s absolutely true. I couldn’t nail it down better. So if you don’t love what you do, if you don’t have this drive to move forward, you won’t stand a chance.
This article is based on phone and email interviews conducted by Jenny Donelan, editor in chief of