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October 19, 2002

Dspfactory's tiny chip does mighty work

From: Waterloo Record, Canada
Oct. 19, 2002


Robert Tong, CEO of Dspfactory Ltd. in Waterloo, shows a tiny analog-digital chip that cleans up audio signals using a minimum of battery power. It will find uses in hearing aids, earphones and cellphones.
A company official is on a cellphone, trying to get vital information as he heads to a presentation at today's trade show.

But as soon as he walks into the noisy trade show auditorium, the echoes, background music and chatter of thousands of voices overwhelm the sound of his voice.

Robert Tong holds the solution -- on a silicon chip so small, he can easily balance it on the tip of his baby finger.

The president of Dspfactory Ltd. in Waterloo holds the technology that will clean up that noise and make a voice more clearly heard, even in the nosiest auditorium.

The company has turned heads with the speed of its growth since it emerged in 1998 as a spinoff of hearing-aid manufacturer Unitron.

It started with five founding members and now has 70 employees -- 45 in Waterloo and 25 in Switzerland.

Earlier this year, it made Profit magazine's top 50 start-ups list, ranked by two-year revenue growth.

In 2001, it reached sales of $16.3 million.

The company started with state-of-the-art hearing aids, and is now expanding into headsets and looking at a range of other markets in the vast array of portable wireless devices.

The rapid growth caused the company to move in July from downtown Waterloo to a 41,000- square-foot brand new facility on Kumpf Drive, on the Waterloo Tech Campus property off of Northfield Drive.

As the company staged its first open house at the new facility this week, Tong was bursting with confidence. "Watch for the new announcements that are coming," he said.

Between now and next spring, three different corporations will be adding the technology into its devices.

The open house provided people a chance to tour the new, spacious facilities, which include a sound booth where the company's software can be tested to ensure it cuts noise and enhances sound quality.

But Tong was most excited when he showed off the latest technological advance.

It was the second generation of the company's SignaKlara technology that fits on just one sub-quarter micron chip.

Previously, the company's technology used two chips to convert regular analog audio sounds into digital signals, reduce noise and enhance voice.

But now, it's all on one chip so tiny, if you cut up a regular postage stamp into 40 pieces, one of those pieces approximates the size.

To put the technology of two chips into one is significant in itself, "but to do so on the size of this chip is really and truly amazing," Tong said.

The smaller size allows it to fit more easily into a wide variety of applications -- from hearing aids to microphones the size of a lapel pin.

But it also provides better sound clarity and will reduce the amount of power needed to run the software embedded within the chip, Tong said.

"If you have just one standard triple-A battery, our device would run on that battery continuously for 200 hours," Tong said.

Big U.S. corporations such as Texas Instruments are furiously competing to come up with something that matches the size and reduced power of the made-in-Waterloo technology.

But Tong said the beauty of Dspfactory is it has the experts who can write software to make the technology useful in a wide variety of very specific devices.

The company doesn't manufacture the chip on site -- that part of it is done by a big chip-making factory overseas.

But it is a "fabless semiconductor company," which means it has the people who write the software algorithms that are geared to each device.

These algorithms can make the technology work for a specific individual's hearing problems or for a particular type of wireless device.

When the software has been written, it is then embedded in the chip and comes back to Waterloo for testing.

The technology can be written for anything that is portable and requires signal processing, said Geoff Bellew, the company's vice-president of sales and marketing.

One can even envision its use in wristwatch-size fitness monitors that can capture vital signs.

Already, some unusual applications have come along.

The company was recently awarded a contract in Spain to develop an experimental black box to capture the voice of a train conductor in the event of a train crash.

"The technology is turning up in places we never imagined," Tong said.

© The Record 2002