The spin-off of the spin-off | What started out as a PhD research project has grown into a profitable business. Sorama - a spin-off from the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) - develops acoustic cameras that can detect the source of noise disturbances.
Author: Linda Bak, Innovation Origins | 11 February 2021
Actually see sound. That may seem like a contradiction in terms, but it definitely can be done. Sorama does it every day. The company makes sounds visible by using advanced acoustic visualization technology. Numerous products, such as cars, must comply with particular noise level standards. A manufacturer can measure whether the product meets these standards with the help of a decibel meter. Yet this device is unable to pinpoint the cause of the problem if the standard level is exceeded. With Sorama's acoustic cameras, however, the problem becomes immediately visible.
In addition to the requisite microphones, Sorama's equipment also includes intelligent software. The acoustic cameras from Sorama use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to find the source of a certain sound. This also means that the equipment can be used as part of the Smart Cities program. For example, the municipality of Eindhoven could monitor the noise levels on the Stratumseind. Acoustic cameras would then be able to see exactly in which pub noise levels are too loud.
This could also come in handy for the police. The software can distinguish between people talking quietly and people having an argument. The arguing sound is linked to coordinates so that the police know precisely where to carry out a quick check. This is done without recording the sound. This safeguards privacy. The data can easily be visualized via a Sorama platform, e.g., on a heat map. This makes it clear at a glance what the noise conditions are of a product or in a space.
In addition to supplying the equipment, Sorama also offers consulting services. "We take the customer from a product that has a noise problem step-by-step to a solution," says Rick Scholte, founder and CEO of Sorama. The company analyzes the problem and offers help in finding a solution. "In the ideal situation, we help companies develop a product even before it reaches the market. This way, we can stay ahead of any sound problems," he continues. Scholte also started his company with this attitude. He wants to make the world sound better.
Step by step
Over the past few years, Scholte has developed several products together with his clients. "The technology we use in our consultancy assignments is very good, as well as highly sophisticated," he says. This went well in the beginning as Sorama was primarily concerned with consultancy. But there came a tipping point at a certain moment. "We wanted to grow by letting customers use the equipment and our data platform themselves. But that wasn't as straightforward as it sounds," Scholte recalls. " Clients were still working with a simple decibel meter and we were introducing a very complicated technology straightaway. That leap was too big, so customers dropped out." Which led to a dip in the growth of Sorama.
"That's why we started working step-by-step from the decibel meter to our cutting-edge technology," Scholte explains. That yielded a broader portfolio of products, measurement techniques and visualizations that align more closely with their customers. "Those are actually small incremental steps that we use to take customers through this complicated technology."
Air and gas leaks
A totally different application of the technology has also sprung up out of this process. Namely, the detection of air and gas leaks during industrial processes. People can look around a factory by means of a simple screen on a camera. If a spot appears on the screen, that's where an air or gas leak is. "This can cut down on a lot of CO2 emissions and costs," Scholte notes.
Scholte believes it is important for the company to master both the technology and its application in each process for all the services that Sorama offers. “We can provide a comprehensive service that way," the CEO states. Sorama no longer does the consultancy entirely on its own. "We are in contact with acoustic consulting firms for this reason," he explains. "We’re trying to build a network of different companies around us this way. Everyone has their own individual specialties." Only the most complicated consultancy assignments are taken on by Sorama itself. This is how the company aims to distinguish itself from its competitors. "Our competitors are usually parties that develop microphones or measurement systems. They generally don't provide this kind of extensive service," Scholte says. Sorama now sells its equipment all over the world.
Research remains key
In addition to its commercial growth, Sorama also continues to conduct research into the underlying technology. “Our connection with TU/e is very important in this regard," he adds. The idea for his company was born when Scholte was doing research at the university. TU/e is a minority shareholder in Sorama. This is a formal relationship, but there is also a more substantive relationship. Scholte has always stayed in touch with professors. Sorama now funds PhD students as well. " We know where our technology is coming from and we want to continue to build on advancing our knowledge. That’s becoming a pretty nice cycle," Scholte stresses.
Sorama brings experience from industry to the academic world and the researchers bring knowledge from the university to the company. This is also invaluable for the university. "We always hope that the connection with companies that started with us will last," says Frank van de Ven, business developer at The Gate at the TU/e. The relationship with Sorama is still very good even after twelve years. Sorama has set up its own research department. This will no doubt strengthen the relationship even further. Scholte: "For instance, we now have the means to finance test setups and allow research groups access to tools. In future, we can also consider joint subsidy projects for long-term studies, to name one thing.”
Making these sorts of investments and setting long-term goals were already important to Scholte from day one. "We have never worked with investment rounds. Consequently, we have no external financiers and are independent as an organization," he asserts. According to him, shareholders often want to see short-term results, which makes it more difficult to enter into long-term collaborations when it comes to research, among other things. Sorama was able to generate its own revenues fairly quickly by providing consultancy services. This enabled Scholte to finance the growth of the company himself.
Van de Ven: "Focus is very important for an entrepreneur. But it can be really difficult to maintain that focus, especially when you enter into discussions with financiers. In the case of Sorama, it worked out very well." Scholte continues: "It wasn't always easy, but now we are reaping the benefits. For instance, through the collaborations with the university that will in future undoubtedly bring us even further." This way of working does call for a certain amount of courage. "There have been times when I wondered: Why am I doing this? There is so much coming at you when you go into business; there are so many facets to it. It is incredibly fragile and the line between success and failure is very thin," Scholte goes om to say. "You shouldn't think too much about the consequences if things go wrong, but you do have to stay focused on your goals."