June 29, 2017
By Rosemary Newton
As co-founder, inventor and audio technology lead at ORA Graphene Audio, Robert-Eric Gaskell knows a thing or two about good sound. We talked to him about the graphene technology, founding a company, and the adjustment going from university researcher to entrepreneur.
Improving high-performance loudspeakers
ORA Graphene Audio uses graphene-based nanomaterials to build high performance loudspeakers and headphones.
“ORA works with graphene nanomaterials to engineer a new class of high-performance loudspeakers that improve the sound quality, loudness, and efficiency for cell phones, tablets, headphones, hearing aids, and tweeters,” explains Gaskell.
Graphene, a thin layer of carbon, is 25 times stronger and 200 times stiffer than steel – but four times lighter.
“Our product is a new type of loudspeaker diaphragm. It’s the part of the loudspeaker that moves back and forth and actually creates the sound that you hear,” he says.
The technology is definitely new—graphene was only discovered in 2004. Using the material, Gaskell and his team have created a lightweight and strong material that moves back and forth with the sound more efficiently, improving both the battery consumption of portable electronic devices and the sound quality.
A background in sound
Gaskell has a PhD in sound recording from McGill University, with a focus on looking at how different electronics affect sound quality and listener perception. Previously, he was a lecturer at McGill University and worked for AEA in California building ribbon microphones.
He was introduced to graphene by his brother, who has a PhD in electrical engineering, also from McGill.
“The two of us decided it would be interesting to try the material in a microphone,” he says. “Then in order to get more funding, we decided it would be interesting to try it in a headphone. Which we did, at McGill University.”
Moving out of the university environment
That’s when the brothers heard from TandemLaunch.
“They approached us, they saw the patent we filed on the technology and thought it would be a good candidate for commercialization.”
He admits he was initially hesitant.
“I was a bit nervous about it, but, as it turns out, I’m extremely grateful to them because the project has very quickly reached a level that I don’t think it could have gotten to if we were just working at it ourselves at the University.”
He co-founded ORA in 2016. Since then, he says they’ve made huge improvements in the technology as well as the manufacturing process. They’ve also validated that there is a strong market demand for improved loudspeaker performance, especially within the cell phone industry.
“We have engaged with many of the biggest manufacturers of cell phones and audio equipment, selling them development kits to allow them the opportunity to explore the potential of our technology.”
They’ve also received interest from the hearing aid industry, automotive industry, and recently, a toy manufacturer.
What first drew Gaskell to TandemLaunch was the relatively large amount of funding they provided as well as their model of paying entrepreneurs a living wage.
“Although this is what originally attracted me, I have found that their real value lies in the support, advice, and environment that they provide. It’s an exciting and motivating environment to work in,” he says.
Since co-founding ORA, he says his strongest memory is attending CES, the International Consumer Electronics Show.
“[I was] more exhausted than I have ever been before due to the excitement and interest in our product and our technology and the seemingly non-stop attention we received from conference goers.”
Adjusting to a new pace
That exhausting pace, Gaskell says, was a bit of an adjustment.
“Coming from academia where development happens very slowly, the speed at which things moved in the startup environment was initially jarring,” he says. “but I really appreciate the pace at which things move now, it really keeps things exciting, and keeps things interesting,”
He says the quick movement, and access to funding and facilities, has led to progress.
“I would go as far as to the say that the first three months we were working on it here we probably had more development on it than we did in the three years we were working on it in the University environment.”
Six years ago, he had built a startup that designed specialty electronics for recording studios.
“Working here is at a completely different level than that earlier project. Having the support and advice of the team has allowed this project to grow from a small idea to a big project that has massive growth potential.”
The value of validation
His biggest lesson thus far is one he learned from his first startup.
“The process of reaching out to the customer base before you get too far into development is really important,” he says. “Learning the needs and pain points of the industries one is trying to engage with provides a huge amount of insight and a great roadmap to commercialization.”
Validation can be a long process, but is worth it.
“Essentially it involves a lot of cold calling of potential customers,” he says.
His advice to grad students considering starting their own company boils down to this same lesson.
“Validate, validate, validate,” he says. “Not only is it important to confirm that there is a market for the technology that you are developing, there is also a huge value to understand the problems faced by your potential customers to see what ways you can guide the development of the technology to meet their needs.”
ORA is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for a pair of headphones Gaskell says exemplifies their technology. Curious?