"...software which is set to revolutionise all our lives."
Clive was born in the mid ’50s in Birmingham, the second largest city in the UK well-known as a major industrial centre. His father was a coal miner and his stay-at-home mum sold insurance door to door whenever they needed extra money.
Looking back, Clive reflects on his childhood and its impact on him in later years. “I went to a small primary school in the middle of Birmingham where most people were immigrants and the locals were in the minority. The government decided to build Spaghetti Junction, the largest motorway intersection in Europe, right on our front lawn so we moved to Malvern, in Worcestershire. That just happened to be the headquarters, at the time, of Europe’s largest research and development establishment in electronics for defence purposes.”
This was to have a direct result on Clive’s future as that facility, the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, worked on new semiconductor compounds, diodes and laser research. “At the age of 19 or 20 I ended up teamed with the electronic counter-measures group developing Doppler radar systems to overcome jamming techniques being developed by the Communist Russians in the 1970s.”
Clive had access to some of the largest research and development projects of the time with very large and speculative R&D budgets. “After that I was contracted by a company called Decca which was famous for rejecting The Beatles. Decca’s big line of business, which people didn’t really know them well for, was the development of the radar receivers for the Rapier ground-to-air missile systems.”
Clive was employed on that multi-million pound project, developing the latest generation of Doppler radar receivers. “That was the late 70’s and there were no microprocessors, everything was done by soldering iron and chips and circuit design so it was very hands-on. But it was all highly speculative, it was all very new and highly theoretical. I was exposed to the world of very speculative high-tech R&D at a very early age and that really was a foundation of my career.”
On a holiday to Australia in 1981 Clive applied offhand for a job at AWA in North Ryde in Sydney, and was offered a job in speech processing in their R&D facilities. Even though that was his second choice, he took it, and the rest, as is often said, is history.
Clive went on to specialise in speech synthesis in the 1980s, speech recognition in the 1990s, and over the past 13 years he’s been working in voice biometrics.
As Clive notes, “there are four biometrics already in use for electronic or computer security; face recognition, fingerprinting, iris scanning – a very secure way of identifying a person from the unique trait of their eyes – and voice biometrics. Like your fingerprint, your voice is unique; it’s about five times more unique than your fingerprint, so it’s a very unique trait.”
Voice biometric technology analyses the characteristics in your voice, either to confirm you actually are who you say you are, or to identify you amongst many different voices. As a consequence, it’s being watched carefully in a commercial sense as a potential replacement for PINs and passwords.
No more PIN (Personal Identification Number) confusion would be welcomed by all. “Your voice is your password,” explains Clive, “so the mere fact you start talking gives away your voice biometric and we can use that then to authenticate identity.”
Clive did his PhD in electronics at Sydney University. “I was very interested in speech synthesis. It’s actually a bunch of algorithms which form a mathematical equation of how the vocal tract works.”
While doing his PhD in the UK during the ’80s, Clive was working under contract to universities. Every 12 months he had to secure a new contract, making him very nimble in commercial terms and also ensuring that he was always on top of new projects and technologies.
During this time Clive recalls he was “complaining to my PhD supervisor, Trevor Cole, that I couldn’t find a job anywhere, to which he said, ‘Well, stop complaining about getting a job. Why don’t you make one? That is, go into business.’ So, in January, 1990, I set up my first technology company called Syrinx Speech Systems.”
That business evolved from Clive sitting in his bedroom to the largest speech recognition group outside Europe and the US. From 1990 to 2001, the company grew from one person to 65 people, deploying the world’s largest speech recognition system and developing some of the very first natural language speech recognition systems.
Being a small and nimble player was to come in very handy as Clive discovered in a later scenario here in Australia. His company had received a very favourable response to its proposal and tender submitted to the TAB in Perth for a speech recognition system to automate some of its telephone betting services. Despite being told they had the best tender, he recalls that when the final decision was announced, they were informed that IBM had won the contract.
Fifteen minutes later, Clive received a call; “It’s IBM here. We want to have a chat.” So as he says, “I jumped in my old clapped-out Mitsubishi Sigma, also known as the Stigma, and off we went to IBM up in the northern part of Sydney. IBM didn’t really want the WA-TAB project as they had no idea how to do it.”
Apparently the TAB had responded to Clive’s tender submission by saying ‘Who is this small Australian company, Syrinx? We’re only buying IBM, thank you very much.’ As Clive wryly comments, “that’s a typical response with large industry, and we’re still battling the big groups today. Elephants buy from elephants!”
Fortunately for Clive the Syrinx technology was compatible with the IBM platform. “We walked away with a contract and a partnership agreement with IBM. And the lesson there, of course, is that given the choice, the big corporate will be selected, irrespective of their ability to deliver the product.”
Fortunately there was an even bigger upside as Clive explains; “The fact that IBM had signed us up as a partner enabled us then to go back to the capital market, and get $1.4 million worth of venture capital funding. If you’ve got IBM buying your product to sell onto others then it has to be good, doesn’t it?”
From there, the relationship with IBM also allowed Syrinx to approach a much bigger customer, AT&T in Jacksonville, Florida. The company teamed up with a small telephone equipment manufacturer who had won a contract with AT&T to supply voice response systems for use in call centres. That then led to a contract with Commsec for the first application of speech recognition in the Australian banking and finance sector which was delivered in May 2000.
The plight of Australian technology companies is simply scale. “Australia, at best, represents 3% to 5% of the global IT spend and technology spend. You cannot be a core technology developer like we are, and exist solely in the domestic market. Strategically, it’s just impossible. You’ll be steamrolled by the competition,” explains Clive.
Auraya Systems was founded in 2006 to develop ArmorVox, which is two to three times more accurate than the products of its very large multinational competitors with billions of dollars at their disposal. Clive proudly states that “ArmorVox incorporates much of the new science and technology around voice analytics and statistical voice analysis to create a product that is world competitive.”
However, Auraya’s funding platform is quite different to that of its competitors such as Nuance and Speech Works. Clive relates the short history of their funding; “one was a spin-off out of Stanford Research Institute and the other out of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Both those research institutes had benefited from $50 million worth of DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) spending during the late ’80s and early ’90s on speech recognition so they had a massive head start on us. Both had first round of funding of three million, second round of funding of thirty million, and both floated at about $300 million on NASDAQ. They went from zero to $300 million in five years.”
By comparison, Clive notes that “the venture capital funding we had with Auraya was somewhere in the range of about 5 to 6 million, so it’s been incredibly frustrating. We have internationally competitive technology. We have marketing that works, but by far our weakest element is our funding. We’re the right technology, at the right time, in the wrong place. In Silicon Valley, you’re immersed in a different environment, which is all about start-ups, all about new technologies, and they’ve been doing it for 50 years. They know about funding.”
Why then does Clive still live in Australia? He responds by saying “I choose to live here. I have to work as best I can in the environment. It’s a constant theme that Australia comes up with fantastic technologies, fantastic ideas and constantly fails to commercialise them on the international level.”
Happily, Clive can also reveal that “we know we are internationally competitive. Even just recently, we’ve knocked out Nuance, which is now worth $6 billion on NASDAQ, $2 billion in revenues, with 12,000 people. If you work these things properly, that’s the potential. But if you treat technology start-ups as a hobby farm, that’s all it’ll ever be, a hobby farm.”
He recalls, “I knew Nuance when it was one or two scientists at Stanford Research. From 1994 to around about 2010, it had gone from two people in an office in Stanford Research to 12,000 people, and a global multi-national. Our other major rival is a company in St. Petersburg in Russia. It has funding from the European Community and has about 400 to 500 people. These are our competitors and we’re four people and a coffee machine.”
It’s important to take the long-term view for Clive. Like many technology-based companies, it’s relevant to consider that “Nuance lost money all the way up to 2010. So, for 15 years it didn’t make a cent and, even today, it’s marginal, yet the investors knew to stay in, because they know this is a long term, strategically important piece of technology. They play a long game, and it’s a winner take all game.”
The most important element of this business is that voice biometrics is now a generic technology which will evolve, develop and change form however the underlying core technology will be a constant into the future. Clive’s firm view is that voice biometrics is not going away. In addition, now that cloud computing has come of age, the emergence of new underlying platform infrastructure technologies enable companies like Auraya to attack and address a global market far more effectively.
There have already been some great successes for the Auraya team. Clive can happily report that “we now have the world’s largest government services deployment in voice biometrics. We have the world’s largest password reset system. That’s being deployed at the moment in the UK. We’ve just been awarded the largest prison services application for voice biometrics in the US. So, we’re now getting some real wins under our belt. The name of the game for us is to get ourselves into a global channel, and to become a dominant player in the provision of voice biometric technologies.”
Clive likens the scenario to that of Dolby, the technology underpinning many entertainment systems, and seen as a benchmark in its industry. Auraya’s ArmorVox product could be the voice biometrics technology behind something like IBM’s password reset or to access help desk solutions or similar other applications for other larger companies. The name of the game for Auraya now is to get their product attached to a global brand.
Despite the challenges of funding and edging out the competition, Clive remains determined. He recalls, “I was once told entrepreneurship was an act of sheer willpower, and it’s as simple as that. It’s taking an intangible and making it tangible. It’s a creative process to go from idea to an outcome that generates a return to the investors and if you get it right, it’s a massive return. The richest people in the world are all basically creators. They’re highly creative individuals. Richard Branson is a creator of brands and he’s able to leverage those brands and create things.”
What would Clive suggest as three main ingredients for success? “First, get your strategy right. Stay very focused on your strategy, don’t get diverted. Many times I’ve seen people get diverted onto side tracks and use all their resources up on a side issue, and then fall apart. Secondly, small start-ups are incredibly fragile, so ensure that you develop that strategy so you can compete against your competitors, and thirdly, think global from day one.”
Who does Clive respect and admire? “It’s been very interesting time in IT, seeing people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates go from being essentially university dropouts, to some of the richest people in the world and understanding how they’ve managed to do that. There are also other interesting characters who are part of the rich history of UK engineers such as Isambard Brunel, and others back in the 19th century, who pioneered steamships and steam power.”
It’s clear that being a product of the UK engineering background had a profound effect on Clive’s future. Even as an 11-year-old, listening to short-wave on a little transistor radio he’d made himself in an afternoon out of discarded parts suggests engineering was always in his genes. Add to that the element of entrepreneurialism in the family and the die was cast for Clive’s future.
It’s the blend of both sides of his family which has given Clive the much-needed ingredients for his chosen direction. He notes that “on my mother’s side, one of my great-uncles was credited with the invention of the ring-binder, about 120 years ago now. On my father’s side, there are coal-miners and the very hard life they led. So my heritage is a combination of never missing a day’s work and looking out for others and creating new things. I say the purest form of creation is creating a company.”
As a consequence of that, Clive is particularly interested in the educational arena such as sponsoring students through university. In his view “they’re the next round of entrepreneurs and creators who I want to support especially given my background. Back in the late 80’s, early 90’s, going into technology businesses on your own, back then was seen as absolutely bonkers. If you had a PhD, why don’t you go and get a job at CSIRO or the university? I didn’t come to Australia to go work in a government institution. I came to Australia to have some fun.”
- “Elephants buy from elephants,”
- “I say the purest form of creation is creating a company.”
- “Nuance now has 12,000 staff. These are the competitors, and we’re four people and a coffee machine.”
- “First, get your strategy right… Secondly, ensure you can compete,.. and thirdly, think global from day one.”
Clive Summerfield has almost lived the life of James Bond. Before he was even 20, the UK Department of Defence seconded him for their ground-to-air missile program during the Cold War. Forty years later he is still at the cutting edge of technology with his voice biometrics software which is set to revolutionise all our lives.