Fabian Campbell-West, CTO and co-founder, Liopa
During this interview, Fabian shares some details about what inspires him in his career, and how he keeps his team of developers happy and productive in their roles.
Q Can you tell us about your academic background?
A Yes, I received my PhD at QUB in 2010 – it centered on Computer Vision, video processing and detecting moving objects. Before that, I studied computer science undergrad at University of Bristol.
Q What did you do next in your career?
A I had a deep interest in founding a company after being inspired by a book called Stop Talking, Start Doing. I found it so engrossing, I read the entire thing on a short plane ride.
It cemented in my mind that I was never going to be satisfied in a standard 9-to-5 job, I needed to be a part of a company founding team. When you have that entrepreneurial spirit it’s hard to suppress it. The book helped me realise that “Yes, I can do this”.
Q So where did that lead you?
A I founded a company called Cognition Video in 2015, and was trying to commercialize technology being developed at QUB. Our technology was based on computer vision and video processing, and AI – although AI wasn’t as big of a buzzword back then.
Q What lessons did that teach you?
A So many lessons about what’s important in a company. A lot of what we were looking at was quite cutting-edge. The tech is important but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Product/market fit is more important than how clever the tech is. If you build something someone wants and it works, then they’ll buy it. Either it works or it doesn’t. On the commercial side, how much you’re selling it for, how big the market is, how you’re going to grow it – all these questions are critical.
Ultimately, I learned that, to scale the company and build it into what I wanted, the business model wasn’t going to work.
Q How did that lead you to Liopa?
A I had always been involved with Liopa, and luckily during that time, Liopa was starting to gain traction. We began to get funding. I’d already met Adrian and Darryl at QUB during my PhD.
Q What was the focus during Liopa’s early days?
A We got competitive funding to build an app for biometrics – using lip movements to uniquely identify someone. Using your lips as your password, essentially. We built an app that demonstrated this concept.
Security credentials are based on three things: Something you have, something you know, and something you are. We built the “something you are” part and embedded it into maximum security applications, that could have all three. We worked alongside another company – the technology was working well enough and there were business opportunities.
It was around that time that Liam McQuillan and Richard McConnell joined, and we formally became a company. Liopa very much changed from a university project to an actual spinout company, becoming a legal entity.
Q So as CTO you’re overseeing everything on the R&D side?
A Yes, I lead the R&D programmes. SRAVI was originally one of those, but now it’s become more of a product. We have a lot more business development going on, and some of our other projects are more at R&D stage, so my focus is on those apps.
Q What type of R&D apps are you working on?
A In-car command and control, and speech recognition in a noisy environment. There are two ways of approaching this – Natural Language Processing, and Keyword Spotting. We’re trying to develop both these technologies and deploy them in different areas. As we make advances and improvements in the underlying tech, we can revisit other products, such as SRAVI, to make improvements.
I always try to approach doing R&D with a very particular end-focus. So that way, we can always apply our learnings to other products.
Q But it’s all related via lipreading.
A Essentially what we’re doing is Lipreading-as-a-Service. At its heart, you’re converting lip movements into text. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you can use the information in different ways. Ultimately, it’s about getting an understanding of what someone is trying to say.
Q How do you transfer that technical know-how into commercial products?
A You’re going after a sweet spot, of delivering something that’s very hard for a user to get elsewhere. If you can do speech recognition where it’s noisy and lipreading can help – that’s unique. If you’re unwell in hospital and can’t write, or if you’re driving a car and can’t use your hands – the hands-free feature of lipreading makes it unique.
Q It seems to me that as technology evolves, we want to get further and further away from needing any form of input. No keyboard/mouse inputs – not even needing to swipe – it’s the ultimate form of computer intuition, to use a device without using your hands.
A That’s why it’s so interesting to get to know young people, who are ‘digital natives’ and have never lived without computers and phones. They’re much more open and willing to try different ways to input into their devices.
Q In what ways has that technological revolution impacted Liopa?
A As one example, when we first started Liopa, we worried people wouldn’t want a video taken of their face. Selfies took care of that hurdle. Security is still super important, but people are comfortable allowing technology to use their data to deliver a service. It’s the price of entry. People are more open today than ever before – provided they get something in return.
Q What’s your favourite part of the job?
A Working in a startup, you have to be willing to turn your hand to anything that needs done. I love that aspect. There’s a broad range of skills my job requires. I can be talking to a doctor one day, I can be talking to someone who wants to put cameras on a plane the next day, and talking to my team of developers the day after. Every day has a challenge – requiring that mindset of always looking to develop and learn. I don’t see it that I have any particular job to do. My job is to do whatever is necessary. As CTO anything technological is certainly under my remit — so to keep us going, I have to do whatever is needed.
Q Does that connect you with others in the startup mindset?
A There are a cohort of people in Northern Ireland who aren’t scared to do something difficult – who are trying to do something exciting. And I’m glad my role positions me to work with people like that.
Q What type of company culture do you try to cultivate, especially after the pandemic forced us all apart?
A I meet the team and go to the office as much as possible. There’s nothing like being in the room with someone. As a team you can work faster and smarter if you can easily ask questions. I do very much like seeing everyone and we have a good camaraderie. I try to create a culture where people enjoy what they do – if they enjoy it and feel rewarded, then everything else falls into place.
Q Any final thoughts for people who have been inspired by your story?
A Take calculated risks. if you believe in yourself and you think you’re capable in yourself, and there’s an opportunity there, go ahead and take it.