Interview with Mike Slawson
1.Most people probably don’t understand the concept of inertial sensors. Please explain the technology you are developing at Qualtre?
The two main types of Inertial, or motion, sensors are accelerometers, which essentially sense gravity and linear motion, and gyroscopes, which sense rotational motion. These sensors translate motion into electrical signals, and can be used for a variety of applications, including camera image stabilization, gaming, inertial navigation, gesture detection, remote control, and many others. While accelerometers have been on the market for many years in automotive applications, and for a few years in consumer electronics applications, gyroscopes are just beginning to find a place in markets outside of military and aerospace. Gyroscopes are very complicated devices and haven’t been as easy to integrate into consumer electronic devices due to size and power issues and prohibitive costs.
The technology we are using at Qualtre was developed by Farrokh Ayazi, our cofounder and chief technical officer, at Georgia Tech. His work is helping us develop and market a unique product, a gyroscope that detects rotational motion across all three rotational dimensions – yaw, pitch and roll. Other products on the market can just detect one or two dimensions. Also, because Farrokh has developed a dramatically new approach to gyroscope technology, we are significantly reducing the size and cost of the sensor, while improving key attributes such as performance, shock resistance, thermal stability and power consumption. We can also combine accelerometers and gyroscopes on the same chip for complete motion capture. These attributes will allow easy integration of motion sensors into devices, such as wireless handheld game controllers and mobile phones, where size and cost have been limiting factors.
We are working with established contract manufacturing companies to accomplish the goal of being able to provide low cost, high performance inertial sensors. Consumers should begin seeing our devices in consumer electronics applications in 2010.
2.What do you see for the future of the motion sensor industry as it continues to mature?
We are in the very early stages of growth for inertial sensors. More and more, as these devices get smaller and less expensive, you’ll see these sensors used commonly in gaming and to assist GPS in pedestrian navigation and asset tracking. Also, consumers will see many new and exciting applications begin to appear.
One area where we see long term opportunity is in “augmented reality,” where the virtual and the real world cross in ways never before possible. Imagine a mobile phone that, based on its location and exact orientation, can provide an image on its display of what the user is looking at, say a restaurant, and can overlay upon that restaurant image highly focused information, like business hours or menu specials. It would make traveling to strange cities much easier. Also imagine electronic games where sensor arrays measure the motion of multiple parts of the body, or sporting equipment that collects and transmits specific motion data that can be used to improve training or allow spectators unique perspectives on the game. These are just a few of the potential new applications our technology will enable.
3.Why is Atlanta an ideal location for Qualtre and similar startup technology companies?
Our company got its start in Atlanta, thanks to Georgia Tech. The university has a long history of strong new technology research programs and offers a deep resource pool when it comes to intellectual property and creative thinking. The environment created by the Advanced Technical Development Center (ATDC) at Georgia Tech offers a low-cost way to get a technology business off the ground.
Additionally, few cities have the global transportation network offered in Atlanta. The location and central airport hub allow easy connections to anywhere in the world we need to do business.
Finally, the many education opportunities and rich variety of local companies give startups access to a well-trained workforce. All of these elements have been invaluable as we’ve built our company.
4.What advice would you give to someone starting a technology company similar to Qualtre?
You don’t have to start from scratch. Technology entrepreneurs need to take advantage of the startup infrastructure programs available through organizations like Georgia Tech and the ATDC. Throughout each phase, they have provided answers to many of our critical questions.
More broadly, be sensitive to the timing of the markets you are planning to enter. It can be worse to be too early with a product than too late. Take the time to meet with your target customers and learn as much as you can. To be successful, you need to understand where demand and market need will be a year from now. At the same time, it is important to make sure your intellectual property is fully protected and defensible.
As far as building your team is concerned, you have to play a balancing act. Cash is king, especially now, so only hire people when you are feeling a lot of pain around a particular job function. When you do, however, don’t be afraid of hiring people who are “overqualified” for the positions. Your goal is to put the best possible person into every needed position while keeping costs as lean as possible. You should also outsource non-core competencies and be as “virtual” as you can.
5.What do you personally enjoy about living in Atlanta? Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
I’ve been living here for 10 years, and I love it. Atlanta offers a unique mix of a high energy business atmosphere and a more relaxed, informal local culture. I think this is due, in part, to the wide mix of people from around the country – and around the world – living here.
As for special interests, once a year, a group of friends and I try to find a decent sized mountain to climb. In the past, these have included Mount Rainier, Mount Whitney, and Grand Teton. Most of my non-work time, however, is spent running my two older kids around to various sporting events or goofing around with my two and a half year old daughter.