When Sam Thomasson’s hearing-impaired daughter was 2 years old, she would like to come up to daddy and try to hug him. But when she did that, her hearing aid would emit a high-pitched squeal, and she would grimace from the pain.
"My first thought was, ‘What do I buy that doesn’t do this?’ " said Thomasson, an electrical engineer with expertise in acoustics. "But they all did it."
His inability to find a satisfactory hearing aid for his daughter set Thomasson on a personal quest.
The Mesa resident, who had worked as an engineer for Motorola, VLSI Technology and Medtronic/Micro-Rel, decided to develop technology that would solve the acoustic-echo problem.
As a result, he founded his own Mesa-based company called Acoustic Technologies to develop and manufacture advanced echo-cancellation software and semiconductors.
Acoustic Technologies at 1620 S. Stapley Drive scored a major coup last spring when it won $13.8 million in venture capital from an investor group organized by Signature Capital Securities LLC, based in Chicago.
The funding was the third round obtained by the company since it was established in 1998, and it was one of the largest venture capital deals in Arizona this year.
The company, which has filed 32 patents, expects to begin shipments of its first products late this year. The technology, which is marketed under the Sound-Clear brand name, is expected to be widely available in cell phones and speaker phones by the middle of next year. And the privately held company hopes to become profitable by late next year.
The problem of acoustic echo, often called "feedback," is the result of a microphone and speaker being turned on at the same time when they are in close to each other. It’s a particular problem in cell phones, speakerphones and handsfree car phones as well as hearing aids, Thomasson said.
The standard solution has been to have the microphone automatically turned off when the speaker is on, and vice versa. But that can create the problem of words being dropped when two people are speaking on a cell phone or speakerphone at the same time. Acoustic Technologies believes it has solved the problem by developing digital signal processors and software that allow the speaker and the microphone to remain on at the same time without the feedback squeal, which lets users speak simultaneously without losing words and to engage in more natural conversation, he said.
The technology was not easy to develop. To accomplish that seemingly simple task requires software and chips that can process 10 million instructions a second, Thomasson said.
Acoustic Technologies has been working with cell phone makers to embed the software, along with other soundenhancement features, in future handsets. The price impact is expected to be a few dollars per phone, Thomasson said.
Echo-cancellation technology is especially important in cell phones that do not need to be held up to the user’s ear — a popular feature.
"When you hold them up to your ear, it becomes inconvenient if you want to refer to information on the screen," he said. "You can do that a lot easier when you can talk into the phone (away from the ear), which makes it a speakerphone. This development in the marketplace plays to our strength as a company."
Many cell phone makers have their own internal programs working on acoustic-echo problems, which provides Acoustic Technologies’ major competition.
"But we have 45 people focused on this problem, and they may have a handful," he said.
Ironically, Thomasson is having to defer his dream of adapting the technology to hearing aids. With worldwide cell phone sales nearing 500 million this year while hearing aid sales amount to about 4.5 million units, the sales potential for mobile phones is far larger and promises a quicker return for investors, he said. But he hopes to move into the hearing aid market eventually.
Bob Ackmann, vice president of Signature Capital Securities, said his company decided to invest in Acoustic Technologies because the company’s approach to the problem is promising and cost-effective.
"There are more and more features on cell phones where you need to look at the phone while you are speaking," he said. "It’s a market shift. The speakerphone market is growing rapidly, and we like the approach (Thomasson) has taken."