Lloyd Watts is the son of a mathematician and a concert pianist, and his parents always pushed him to be a Renaissance man. “My mom, since I was a kid, held up Leonardo da Vinci as a role model,” he says.
Watts, now 50, has spent the last two decades living up to his parents’ vision by studying how people process sounds and figuring out ways to make computers hear just as well. His company, Audience, makes special chips for mobile phones and tablets that separate a speaker’s voice from surrounding noises. If you’re at a concert talking on a phone with Audience’s EarSmart chip, the person on the other end of the line will hear you clearly, without the blaring music. The latest version of the chip came out in November, and earlier versions are in more than 50 smartphones, including Google’s (GOOG) Nexus One. The researcher IDC expects EarSmart and similar technology to be in 70 percent of phones by 2016, in a market worth $750 million.
Audience’s chips are “clearly superior to what some of the other companies have today,” says Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at chip researcher Linley Group. “You can hear the difference. The other companies are just now trying to do the kind of research that Audience is doing.” The company’s technology works so well in part because Watts requires the handset makers that use his chips to give their devices a second microphone. That makes it easier to discern the direction sounds come from, just as a pair of ears do.
Watts’s journey into audio research began at age 14, when he sat down at a piano in his Kingston (Canada) home and figured out how to play one of his favorite songs, Elton John’s Rocket Man. While studying engineering physics at Queen’s University, he made it easier to transcribe music by programming a computer to slow down a song without distorting its pitch, making individual notes clear.
Watts earned his doctorate in electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, where he created detailed computer models of how the ear and brain distinguish sounds such as tones, claps, music, and speech. He continued the research at Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen’s Interval Research, which spun out Audience in 2000. The Mountain View (Calif.) company has since raised $75 million and is “large enough to attract the attention of bankers” interested in taking the company public, says Forest Baskett, general partner at venture firm NEA, an Audience investor. “It’s right on the edge of profitability.”
Meanwhile, Watts has continued down the Renaissance man path: He plays piano and cello, is a photographer and painter, and authored the 2008 book The Flow of Time and Money: How to Create a Full and Prosperous Life. He did have to give up hang-gliding, though. Investors were wary of giving money to an extreme-sports enthusiast. “We are just at the beginning of something truly great,” he says.