How University support has helped two innovative graduates turn their technical idea into a virtual reality.
Two Big Ears, a start-up company formed in Edinburgh by two Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) graduates, Abesh Thakur and Varun Nair, was acquired by social media giant Facebook in May 2016.
The company, which specialises in virtual reality audio solutions, creates audio technology that, according to Varun Nair “helps you see through your ears”. The business designs immersive and interactive audio applications and tools, with a focus on mobile and emerging technologies. As part of the acquisition by Facebook, the firm’s flagship product, called Spatial Workstation, will in future be given away free of charge, to get the innovative technology in to the hands of developers creating content for the quickly expanding virtual reality markets.
Abesh Thakur graduated from ECA in 2012 with an MSc in Acoustics and Music Technology. Originally from India, Abesh came to Edinburgh in 2011 to pursue his masters, having worked in India for a Fortune 500 company as a programmer.
Varun Nair also graduated from ECA in 2012, but with an MSc in Sound Design. Also originally from India, Varun worked in music and post-production before moving to Edinburgh to pursue a degree. He met Abesh through the Digital Media Studio Project at ECA. The project forms a core course for masters students and brings together cohorts from design and digital media, sound design, digital composition and performance degrees, as well as other areas from the wider university, to form small multidisciplinary teams.
Describing what led Varun to choose Edinburgh for his first venture into higher education, he doesn’t hesitate: “The structure of the Sound Design programme and Dr Martin Parker, the Programme Director,” he says. “Masters programmes in the UK are extremely flexible and challenging and it was fantastic to be inspired and pushed into areas I’ve never explored. It was a great combination of good staff, inspiring colleagues, a well-structured programme, access to great resources and ultimately a beautiful city that is easy to live in.”
Abesh agrees: “My course too was very well structured and paced and what I’m doing right now is a direct extension of what I learned.” He adds: “Amazing course content, a city which redefines beauty, and a world-class university with expert faculty; that’s a no-brainer!”
Support during their time at ECA has been crucial to their journey. Abesh describes the College as having been incredibly helpful, not just during their taught masters, but after graduation. For Varun the start-up company began thanks to the Digital Media Studio Project but was only able to continue and flourish due to the broad spectrum of support made available to them. He says: “Abesh and I decided to take ourselves seriously (while at a mutual friend’s birthday party) and began developing a low footprint but effective cross-platform binaural spatialisation engine. We were then supported by the amazing local start-up and business community in Edinburgh.”
Abesh and Varun received support from the robust enterprise systems at the University, including Edinburgh Research & Innovation’s student enterprise initiative, LAUNCH.ed, which provided investment, mentoring, training, and advisory support. They also received help from the University’s Business School’s Entrepreneurship Club (eClub) and Informatics Ventures, an initiative run by the University’s School of Informatics with a mission to support Scotland’s technology entrepreneurs from any university or the business sector.
To wake up every day to solve people’s problems in an effective and creative way and to be recognised for it, is what keeps us going.
Two Big Ears formed part of LAUNCH.ed and Informatics Ventures’ inaugural summer entrepreneurship programme, and Abesh went on to represent the company to investors in 2014, when he pitched at Engage Invest Exploit, an annual event to bring together a selection of the most talented young, high-growth companies in Scotland to introduce them to a wide range of global investors.
As both Abesh and Varun were international students they also received the backing of the University to gain their Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur Visa, to ensure they could stay in Scotland and develop their company.
The success of Two Big Ears in such a short space of time is in no small part due to the hard work of these two inspiring individuals. Abesh comments: “To wake up every day to solve people’s problems in an effective and creative way and to be recognised for it, is what keeps us going.”
Among their successes since being founded, was a project to use their 3Dception engine (a 3D audio spatialisation tool for games) to create a 360-degree immersive sound experience for musician Björk’s release Stonemilker in March 2015, which was previewed at MoMA in New York.
As the company has grown, they’ve taken on two more ECA graduates in Toby Carpenter and Ross Taylor, who both studied on the Acoustics and Music Technology MSc programme.
Grant Wheeler, head of company formation at Edinburgh Research & Innovation comments on the recent acquisition: “We’re thrilled for Abesh and Varun; they have worked hard to develop a robust and exciting product and build a strong team to deliver on their mission. They made the most of all the support offered by the University and have turned their idea into something that will make real impact on the virtual reality space. We’re pleased that LAUNCH.ed and Informatics Ventures could be part of their entrepreneurial journey. They are proof that student start-ups make a difference and are worth investing in.”
Dr Michael Newton, Programme Director of the Acoustics and Music Technology MSc at ECA reflects: “The success of Two Big Ears is remarkable. Its origins lie in the unique, multidisciplinary environment at the University. Such collaborative work, with creative application, underpinned by robust scientific methodology, is ample evidence of the world of opportunities that Edinburgh’s unique ethos can provide.”
Photo © Malcolm Cochrane Photography