MATRIX Labs is an organization dedicated to helping aspiring creators and entrepreneurs develop Internet of Things solutions. The company's principal products include and —development boards designed for efficient and affordable hardware applications, with the latter product specifically focused on voice assistant applications.
The following is an abridged transcript of a March 18, 2018 interview between Rodolfo Saccoman, Founder and CEO of MATRIX Labs, and the element14 Community team.
Can you give a quick overview of the MATRIX Voice and share some of the inspiration that motivated you to develop this product?
MATRIX Voice is an evolution of our plan to provide users, makers, and entrepreneurs with the ability to create hardware products and solutions extremely fast. One of our big missions is to democratize the intersection between hardware, AI, and software. If you think about it, creating hardware products is extremely expensive. It requires years of development. There're a lot of barriers for a company to innovate, in terms of hardware. How do you easily interface artificial intelligence—be it computer vision, be it voice recognition, and other aspects of AI—into the hardware and some type of a software stack, where you can actually focus on building your market, building your solution, and then just developing something of value instead of spending millions of dollars and a couple of years trying to get a prototype together?
You decided to release this product as a piece of open source technology that's designed to expedite the development process you talked about. Why do you find that open source approach to be valuable?
We are really community-centric. We believe in this concept that if you give smart and creative engineers and thinkers this kind of building block platform, amazing things will come from it. All of our technologies are geared towards that. Specifically for MATRIX Voice, what we achieved was creating a very affordable development board where you can bring in any third party voice recognition APIs or solutions and run it through MATRIX Voice. MATRIX Voice can work with the Raspberry Pi collection, but it can also work by itself. It’s almost like we want to embrace more of the creative minds globally, and enabling our hardware and accompanying operating systems to allow these solutions and creations and new companies to happen. We're very bullish on computer vision. We're very bullish on voice recognition. We're bullish on gesture recognition and things that we like to call "touchless technology." Our MATRIX product lines are focused on that concept of making touchless technology approachable by everyone. Our slogan, it's "The Internet of Things for everyone," which, I think, it's pretty accurate what we're trying to achieve.
Can you talk about how your ongoing collaboration with element14 specifically fits into the picture in terms of the MATRIX Voice?
Right now, we are finalizing the details of how element14 is distributing MATRIX Voice. What we have created with Hari [Kalyanaraman, Global Head of Emerging Businesses at element14] and the great team at Avnet is this family of products that are MATRIX products. The first one was MATRIX Creator that in many ways surpassed our every expectation of the reach. And then MATRIX Voice is the next product in line. The idea there is for element14 to distribute it globally. We have certified Voice so it can be shipped to any country in the world. We passed all of the strict certifications of the product globally. From a very high level overview, we love how Avnet is thinking about the maker innovation of hardware solutions. I think the vision is aligned to ours in a way that— Give people amazing products, have software that is enabling, and make it as open source as you can. In many ways, the way I like to compare it is, think back—I think it was 2007 if I'm not mistaken—where Apple introduced its iPhone. What happened there is that they created a hardware, they allowed the software to be somewhat flexible, they enabled people to create apps—the hardware had some sensors and it had the ability to have connectivity. Our MATRIX Creator and MATRIX Voice product lines go somewhat along that same thinking. Let's trade this very powerful piece of hardware—more intended, obviously, for Internet of Things/AI physical world applications—let's create an operating system that is pretty flexible, let's give developers the tool to create, and let's see what amazing things happen. What killer apps are going to happen in the world based on MATRIX Creator and MATRIX Voice? We even launched a very early app store, where you have developers creating apps on top of the MATRIX Creator, which is awesome. We foresee that happening more and more.
I'm thinking about what you're talking about and the various other interviews that I've conducted, and a common theme that all of these founders of startups have articulated is that of collaboration and empowering others who may have otherwise limited access to learning more about how technology functions. At this point where we are in today's society, everyone's a consumer, but it seems like so few people really understand what goes into the technology that powers their lives. I'm wondering, what are some ways that we can break down those barriers to entry within the world of technology?
If you think back to maybe, I don't know, 1994, HTML and other web coding languages—very few people knew about it. It wasn't commonplace. It took some time to learn. And then, today, there're a plethora of of mobile and web services. I think what we are trying to do at MATRIX Labs is make hardware/AI convergence as easy as it is to create websites. I think that would be amazing. Think of, let's say, our MATRIX Creator product. If you were just to get all the different components and protocols that we have embedded into the board, it would take about $350.00 worth of components. Then you have to manufacture, you have to certify it, and so forth. We were able to bring down the price to $99.00 per board. And then you can go to our GitHub account or go to our Community, you can go to our app store, you can start downloading apps. You're basically making that MATRIX Voice become usable, become a building platform. But, if you were to look at that many years ago, or even today, it's very expensive. Our goal is to democratize that and give folks the tools to build. I think that's so rewarding for the team.
Looking back at the evolution of MATRIX Labs, can you share any key landmarks or milestones that directly led to your current success?
The most important thing is your team. I think going at it alone is very difficult. My suggestion would be to find a complementary co-founder from the get-go. Usually, it's a three-prong approach. You want one very technical co-founder—especially for technology companies—a very technical co-founder, a very sales-oriented partnership-oriented co-founder, and the other one is a business marketer co-founder. I think that's very important. Second portion is, you're going to need some funding. There're many ways of doing it. Increasingly, there's a lot of more crowd-source funding opportunities. You want to raise enough funding to reach some very important milestones. The other thing is, you'll want to make decisions where you reduce your development time. Let's say if you have a hardware product in mind, what can you use right now off the shelf, but that it's scalable enough that maybe you can do 5,000 units, 10,000 units quickly, inexpensively, so you can prove the market so you can get some deals? Take that route instead of developing your own hardware. I think that's really important. I would say the mix of your co-founders—the founding team. Second is, you have to secure some type of funding to give you a runway for you to show your first proof of concept. Thirdly is, utilize technologies that are already out there in the marketplace so you can really prove that you can sell whatever it is that you're building. I think those things are really, really important.
Are there any significant challenges that you've had to overcome during the development of the MATRIX Voice?
MATRIX Creator and MATRIX Voice, these are hard products to make. MATRIX Voice took us probably six months longer than we had projected, though we made some really good changes along the way. We included an ESP32 chip as another version, so there's a basic MATRIX Voice version and then there's a MATRIX Voice ESP32, which is this chip that has Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and a microcontroller. That was a great addition to the product because now it enables developers and enterprises to create MATRIX Voice products just with the MATRIX Voice board itself. They can choose just to run it by itself. You don't need another kind of processor. But, that took longer. Certification processes—we're very serious on that because what we are seeing is that we have a lot of enterprise clients also utilizing our boards to create office automation solutions, home automation products, so, that usually takes longer. For Voice, specifically, we took a little longer to get the final product out because we wanted to bring in that ESP32, we wanted to increase the size of the FPGA so people can do a lot of more voice recognition applications right at the edge, so they don't have to hit the cloud if they don't want to. Yeah, so, I think those were certain things. But, they were calculated. But, again, as all of us, we want to ship the product as fast as we can, but we only ship if it's incredible.
Looking ahead, what excites you about the future of your company?
I think the future for MATRIX Labs is us enabling the IoT app economy. This amazing building block that we're building, the goal is that it can operate similar to how the Apple Store—how you can download apps on your smartphone, so your smartphone does, possibly 1.6 million, I think that's the number of apps today. Our goal for MATRIX Labs is that our products, working with others, can really enable that IoT app economy to happen. That would be really exciting.
For more information about MATRIX Labs, read our in-depth case study highlighting the MATRIX Voice.