I just got off the phone with Al Wegener, CTO at Samplify Systems. You know how it goes? Sometimes you come across someone who just makes you realize how glad you are to be in this business, despite the many ups and downs.
Al founded the company and for his research and development which lies at the heart of the company's conversion and compression technology, he's a nominee to receive an EE Times ACE Award in the category Innovator of the Year.
I was part of the judging panel (click here to see the other finalists), and so I was asked to profile (briefly) the finalists for an EE Times Image Gallery to go online next week in the lead up to the announcement of the award at the Embedded Systems Conference.
Anyway, I wanted to talk to the man behind the innovation to get a feel for where he was coming from. He has quite the background: Bucknell and Stanford grad, spent his early years working on audio systems (Yamaha, Atari), worked at Texas Instruments managing its wireless ASICs group. All good stuff, of course, but kind of like a resume.
So we went back further: How did you get started? I asked. Turns out it began when his uncle, who worked for Siemens in Germany, sent him a Heath Kit. How many of us can relate to that starting point? A lot, I'll bet. But wait, it gets better!
He took a liking to DSPs in college and so in 1999 in his garage he started, "fooling around with algorithms", having seen the opportunity for compression in applications that never used it before. Later, he got access to an algorithm from a specialist in Switzerland, licensed it, and spent his vacation in Sequoia National park in his tent porting it to a Motorola DSP for lossless compression.
He kept dabbling in this algorithm development in his spare time at home while at TI during the first half of this decade. He approached TI about it, but they weren't interested. Then two months later, in July 2006, he founded Samplify with funding from a college friend. In March of '07 Samplify landed $6.5 million in series A funding.
"So," I asked, "what do you do in your spare time in the garage now that this algorithm has become your full-time job?" Guess what his answer was. Yup, you got it: More algorithms.
"I still like to work on compression algorithms," he said, "but for certain functions like magnitude and phase distribution: more specific algorithms."
It's all about passion. Following your instincts. Many bemoan the lack of respect/pay/posterity engineers get, especially as jobs get outsourced and we have to compete on a global level. But how many engineers like Al, and the thousands more like him out there, got into it for the money? They didn't. They're happy to make money, but that's not what it's about. It never was.
It's designers like Al that remind me why I got into engineering, why I enjoy being an editor, and why the passion and love that he and others have for pure engineering and research will keep our innovative edge alive and well.
Good luck at the ACE Awards, Al!