Michael Stokes is President & CEO of Waveform Communication in Indianapolis, Indiana. He participated in Startup Weekend Bloomington in Indiana last May. Already a seasoned entrepreneur, Mike discovered a whole new side of creating a business during his 54 hours. He offered to share his journey that began nearly 20 years ago with us.
A little over 20 years ago, I was working at a graduate level in cognitive psychology with a focus on the acoustic phonetic features of speech recognition. During that time, I segmented over 15,000 waveform displays of speech productions and eventually recognized the visual patterns in those waveforms to identify vowels. Although circumstances changed my academic career, I continued my work with waveforms and eventually presented for the first time the ability to identify vowels entirely from visual cues in waveform displays at an Acoustical Society of America conference in 1996. Despite this success, the model for this process needed to be refined and developed into a working algorithm. For the next 13 years, I worked as a programmer developing the computer skills needed to build a working automatic speech recognition algorithm while making the changes needed to achieve human performance with the acoustic model. This work culminated in the publication of the Waveform Model of Vowel Perception and Production in 2009.
This was a major milestone, but I quickly realized this was not the finish line. This was yet another step that quickly led to more steps including the establishment of Waveform Communication, LLC, having a professionally prepared commercialization report (through funding by the Indiana Economic Development Corporation), and being named one of the top 50 start-ups in the world in 2011 by the GEW 50 (established by the Kauffman Foundation). Again, there was still more work to be done including filing a patent to protect the intellectual property, and there was still the goal of getting funding to make this a full time endeavor. This is what led me to attending the Startup Weekend event in Bloomington, Indiana in May 2012.
As the research successes continued and the business became stronger, it was important to stay humble and acknowledge there was still more to learn. There was still the need to sell the science and the enormous potential resulting from a working cognitive model. I also needed experience and feedback from presenting the work especially to potential investors. I went to Startup Weekend Bloomington to improve my pitch and presentation of the development, and emerge myself in the business model. Since academia had pursued the questions the Waveform Model answers for over 60 years, the innovation and potential is evident. The cognitive model now needed a business model.
It was abundantly clear I needed work on my presentation since I was a one man team. I was not expecting the demonstration of my need to improve to be so blunt, and it would have been easy to not go back for Saturday and Sunday. However, I went to learn and gain experience. Reading a book simply won’t achieve the goal, and I would have missed the opportunity to talk with angels and learn what they look for in an investment. Gaining that wealth of information made it easy to get past another humbling moment.
On Saturday, I began working on a team that was building an app to take orders and have them paid over a phone. The innovation was to have the transactions be performed through speech recognition. A demonstration was built over the weekend using SPHINX (open source freeware speech recognition). My contribution to the project was showing how speech recognition at human performance levels would put our product ahead of any competitors. Having an algorithm that achieves over 99 percent accuracy on data measurements demonstrated that the Waveform Model makes human performance accuracy feasible.
The final chapter to this is that in spite of my early presentation failure, I was one of two companies that found angel funding that weekend. That led to a second angel, a lease grant from the city of Brownsburg, Indiana, and a training grant from Hendricks County Indiana. Two interns are preparing to join Waveform Communication at the end of the school year, and the first developed application is expected to go to market by the end of the summer. This all started because of the willingness to learn and participate, and being prepared when the opportunity presented itself.
It is difficult to condense over 20 years of patience and work into a few paragraphs, largely because it involves so many facets. In the end, it is business that is championing the science and moving Waveform Model products into the markets. This story is also an example of the innovation compensating for the poor presentation, and then the performance and inevitable impact on the market finished the sell. My experience may not be as unique in the future if more entrepreneurs understand there are a number of progressive steps that must be taken to make a dream a reality. Just because an idea may be life altering there is no guarantee it will be recognized, and events like Startup Weekend become an invaluable resource to those needing assistance in an area that is not necessarily their strength; business. I will be forever grateful for the experience and opportunity that weekend in Bloomington brought to me.