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High probability of success

MIT alumnus and entrepreneur Ben Vigoda took his probability-processing technology to market with help from the Institute.
Ben Vigoda SM ’99, PhD ’03
Ben Vigoda SM ’99, PhD ’03
Photo courtesy of Lyric Semiconductor/Lyric Labs

While at MIT, Ben Vigoda SM ’99, PhD ’03 patented technology that, in theory, allowed computer chips to calculate probabilities, enhancing computer-processing speed and capabilities while reducing power consumption. Starting a company to help bring this technology to market, however, was the real challenge.

That’s where MIT came in: Using the Institute’s entrepreneurial resources, Vigoda co-founded Lyric Semiconductor Inc. and set up shop in Kendall Square’s startup haven, the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), located a few blocks from MIT.

For years, Lyric worked quietly on its novel technology, dubbed probability processing, while raising more than $20 million in funding, primarily from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Stata Venture Partners. After officially announcing its technology in 2010, the company gained rapid notoriety in tech circles and, in 2011, was acquired by tech giant Analog Devices Inc. (ADI) for a substantial amount.

However, the entire Lyric team — including Vigoda and his co-founder, 25-year semiconductor veteran David Reynolds — remains at the CIC as ADI employees, developing innovative technologies as Lyric Labs, a research group of ADI.

Looking back, Vigoda says he owes much of his entrepreneurial success to MIT: He conceived of his technological direction in the MIT Media Lab, back in the late 1990s, with help from his thesis advisor, Neil Gershenfeld, and other mentors. But at MIT he also found a host of startup resources — such as an entrepreneurship prize competition and the Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) — that breathed life into his startup and helped him amass business expertise.

“I owe much of my success to what MIT had to offer,” Vigoda says.

Helping computers navigate ambiguity

Vigoda’s group is creating computer chips that perform inferences and machine learning on uncertain data — data that can be incomplete or contradictory — more efficiently than today’s chips.

“If a normal computer program receives an unanticipated or noisy input, it will ordinarily either give the user an error message, crash the program or even, in some rare cases, crash the machine,” Vigoda says. “With probabilistic processing, the hope is to help the computer directly understand that the world is noisy, ambiguous, or even contradictory, and to be able to cope with that in a more native way.”

With this technology, Vigoda says, computers can enable capabilities for processing signals and data with “orders-of-magnitude greater efficiencies” in cost, power and size. This has implications for a wide variety of applications, including consumer electronics, communications infrastructure, automotive electronics, mobile health, industrial automation and energy systems. The chips will show up soon in phones and tablets, Vigoda says.

In 2010, Lyric was named to EE Times’ prestigious list of 60 emerging startups; in 2011, it made Technology Review’s annual list of the world’s 50 most innovative technology companies.

Removing entrepreneurial barriers

Although Vigoda has been working for more than a decade on probability processing — work that is now based on more than 75 patents — he found at MIT the resources and early success needed to make his vision a reality.

The MIT Media Lab, for instance, provided him with a free, nonexclusive license to patents he filed there as a PhD student — something it does for all graduate students who develop technology in the lab. “This is part of a message that says MIT is trying to encourage entrepreneurship,” Vigoda says.

More importantly, perhaps, is that Vigoda joined a team that won a $10,000 runner-up prize in MIT’s $50K (now $100K) Entrepreneurship Competition in 2002. The prize sparked Vigoda’s entrepreneurial spirit and acclimated him to the business community.

Vigoda says he learned a few key skills in the $50K competition: namely, a greater understanding of what venture capitalists are looking for, and how to structure a business plan. Before the competition, Vigoda was talking about how his technology could reduce the number of joules (a standard measurement of energy) computer chips would use; he learned to recast his pitch in units of dollars. This is much more effective in drawing investors, Vigoda says.

“That was the main thing I learned: to translate your idea from technical units to economic units,” he says. “Venture capitalists weren’t as interested in us until we started talking business.”

‘Think with your hands’

While still developing Lyric, Vigoda participated as a mentee in MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS), receiving advice from about 10 different mentors. Each had knowledge of different aspects of business, such as patents, manufacturing and raising funds, he says.

Vigoda says his mentors helped him find and rectify weak spots in his business by continuously questioning his thinking. This process of questioning, he says, is vital in building a business. “Through their Socratic method, they would get you to understand what you can do better,” he says. “That’s not only helpful for improving the thought process about your business and technology, but it’s just a good skill to learn.”

But it wasn’t just extracurricular activities that helped Vigoda, it was also a core philosophy, he says, that he learned from Gershenfeld, who is director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms: “Always think with your hands,” Vigoda says — essentially, start building a prototype right away and learn as you go.

It’s something architects do, Vigoda says, paraphrasing words he heard from Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab: “Architects build a model before they even know what they want. They begin messing with materials and they learn as they go and eventually develop a viable model. That ‘just start building’ mentality at MIT is awesome and is how we developed our technology and company early on.”

Staying close to the ‘fire hose’

While working on novel computer-processing technology may draw some to set up shop in Silicon Valley, Vigoda and his Lyric team have stayed put in the CIC. The reason, Vigoda says, is to stay close to the intellectual capital at MIT and Harvard University, and be involved with the innovative community fed by Kendall Square’s tech sector.

“From a business perspective, there’s a life of ideas that flows into Kendall. We’re always hearing about the coolest innovations here. We’ve met customers, employees, and discovered new technologies here. That’s had a substantial impact on the growth and development of this company,” he says.

For emphasis, Vigoda evokes a popular metaphor associated with MIT: “drinking from the fire hose,” which refers not only to receiving an education at MIT — with its sometimes overwhelming course load — but also to the flood of ideas and intellectual growth at the Institute. “We’re not leaving. We want to stay close to the fire hose,” he says.

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