In this interview with Richard McConnell, our COO and co-founder, we discussed his career and his future visions for Liopa.
Can you describe one of the earliest experiences you had in the IT sector?
A: During my IT degree at QUB, I spent a year out with DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. I conducted research into the use of emerging technologies for military applications. When I began working there, it was the early days of research into supercomputing – they were building massively parallel computers with many CPUs. I worked on developing a 3D map visualisation application. Its aim was to be a transportable computing device for soldiers in the field, enabling them to fly through a map or look over a hill – it explored terrains for planning purposes.
What other academic experiences helped prepare you for your career?
A: When I left DARPA and came back to QUB to finish my degree, they were setting up the High Performance Computing Centre – the team was working on parallel computing and supercomputing and I joined them as a senior system analyst after graduating. It had one foot in academia and one foot in industry, implementing supercomputers in the university, to use them for projects with business.
There, I worked with Cray Research, who were the leading supercomputer manufacturer in the world. I did a joint project with them to implement one of the supercomputers in Belfast. We used that for some of the applied maths and physics high performance applications at QUB.
Part of that work involved raising grant funds and securing projects with external companies – and then publishing that work and going to academic conferences.
At what stage did you enter the startup world?
A: I joined my first startup in 1995 – called Apion, it was an offshoot of a Dublin company that implemented the first mobile text messaging system in the world. We started with 10 engineers in Belfast.
At Apion, we developed software for Ericsson – software that worked within the big telephone exchanges. I started as a Software Development Manager, coding and managing teams, but I eventually became CTO of the Company – where I was tasked with taking it from being a services organisation, to developing the company’s own products.
What did you create there?
A: I built an R&D team and then found an area which was emerging at the time – connecting a mobile phone to the internet. This concept was just starting to bubble up. We created a gateway that sat on the mobile network and enabled WAP (wireless application protocol). We were the first company in the world to put a WAP-compliant gateway into production.
What could users do with that connection, in the earliest days of mobile computing?
A: For example, you could access your bank account, or read news headlines – the concept of a phone connecting to an app on the internet was entirely new – and obviously it became a huge thing in the telecoms industry.
It must have been such an exciting time to be in the mobile software business. Did it explode?
A: We became very successful with WAP – competing with Nokia, etc. – and we had one big competitor called Phone.com. They launched on Nasdaq in 1999 and achieved a $2bn market valuation almost immediately – because their market potential was every mobile phone in the world. Nowadays, unicorns happen often, but back then it was very rare. They eventually acquired Apion to create the biggest market share in this space in the world.
What sorts of opportunities did that create for you?
A: It gave me the opportunity to move to California to run the mobile carrier group – that comprised all the software that Phone.com sold to all the operators for mobile internet, location services, and multi-media messaging. For three years, working in CA, I was responsible for mobile teleco development – and quite a few patents came out of that work.
We were lucky to be at the forefront of app developers starting to use mobile phones, and network capabilities, as part of their apps.
What came next for you?
A: I came back to Northern Ireland and I founded Mobile Cohesion with Denis Murphy – and we secured VC funding from Accel Parters, a top-tier VC in the Silicon Valley. It was a gateway that sat at the very edge of a mobile network to help manage/monetise app developers on the internet – using APIs.
Our startup was then acquired by Aepona in 2008, and I acted as CTO there for five years. We were focused on generating app capabilities based on mobile telephony.
Then, we were bought by Intel, which wanted the technology as part of its IOT strategy – because it relies very heavily on wireless connectivity. The gateway helps to realise IOT providers and monetise their applications.
I spent a few years as Director of Product Management at Intel, when I started to get involved at Liopa.
What attracted you to Liopa?
A: The technology – everything was always about the product and technology. In my career I started in software development – and then led teams – then full product groups – then rose to CTO / COO – but the theme has always been to build new things. Also, I like the challenge of trying to find real-world apps and building new concepts into real-world technology.
What was most interesting for you?
A: The Neural network – and the potential ability to decipher what’s been said from lip movement alone.
What are your thoughts on the future for Liopa?
A: Our job is to bring this automated lip-reading technology into the real-world – which nobody has done before – and then find the value-added markets and use cases for it. That’s our focus. If we are able to attract significant additional investment, then we could build out a company that scaled up and remained independent. That’s what it will take for proper exploitation in one of the vertical markets, such as digital health, which we are targeting with our SRAVI app.
It’s also conceivable that a larger company will want to acquire our unique lip-reading capabilities to roll into their product portfolio.
Does that meet your vision for the company?
A: Our vision is to strengthen the core AI in our lipreading product – making it a robust and reliable real-world technology, and then find multiple use cases in multiple markets which are lucrative.
What’s your favourite thing about your role?
A: Talking to and working with the potential users. Because the technology is so new and nobody ever thought it was possible – we get a lot of enthusiasm and great feedback from potential users. It’s exciting to think about the many possible use cases for automated lip-reading.
Do you have any advice for someone just starting an IT career?
A: My advice would be to focus on building really strong core technical skills in the early part of their career.