WMNinTECH: Afsoon Soudi on the transition from academia to tech

Both the science and tech sectors tend to be male-dominated. But in switching from academia to launching a business, Afsoon Soudi discovered a whole host of new challenges and responsibilities. There’s so many different aspects of a product that a co-founder is responsible for, from finding the perfect team to pleasing investors to developing a product that actually resonates with consumers.

“In academia the most focus is on the research,” Afsoon told MTLinTECH.

When you’re creating a new type of research idea, it doesn’t necessarily become a product that’s being used by customers. People are more idealistic and the result of it is only a paper. I definitely still do the research and publish papers, but it doesn’t end there. There’s a lot more going on in a startup. I would say the biggest difference is all the other responsibilities that come with having a company. Making sure that the vision of the company is set, that you have the right people to deliver on that, and also being on time on the schedule, making sure you have a product market fit. There’s a lot of different things you’re learning having a startup.

After obtaining her PhD at Washington State University in the US, Afsoon moved to Canada and continued in academic research, specifically she completed postdoctoral research in optical characterization of semiconductor Quantum dots. It was in Montreal that she met her future co-founder, got involved in TandemLaunch, and ended up launching a startup.

“Basically I got into TandemLaunch through my cofounder Tara [Akhavan]. She was looking for a co-founder to start her startup, and then she met me and brought me to TandemLaunch where I became Entrepreneur-in-Residence. Then we explored a little more and started a company together.”

That company was IRYStec Software Inc., a perceptual display platform that makes any kind of portable devices smarter. Founded two years ago, the concept is related to Akhaven’s PhD research in computer vision and image processing.

“What our company does is we’re developing the first perceptual display platform that makes any kind of portable devices smarter. For the first product we can increase the image quality in extreme lighting conditions. So for example when you have your cell phone at night in your bed or when you’re going out in the sun. Either your screen is too bright in the sun, or if you dim it you lose depth and image quality. Our software optimizes that in real time. And the next step is making the screen personalized based on the individual watching the display.”

Everybody has different visual perceptions. But some of those preferences in perception have been shown to trend one way or another based on gender, age, or cultural background.

“Some people prefer certain colours. There are also trends in different parts of the world, for example in Asia they prefer colder colours, bluish screens, and in the Western countries they prefer warmer colours. So that’s one factor that affects preferences culturally or based on the age and gender. Some people are colour blind. They view the screen differently, so our product improves the way they see their screen. These are things that have been in the industry for a long time. But the difference is the bigger industries treat displays mostly for the 25 year old male and they calibrate it for that person. Nowadays everybody has their own display for different ages and for different environments. So you need to change that, make it flexible to take into account all these factors and improve the image for everybody.”

The product is still in development, but by working with customers to calibrate their personalized settings they’ve noticed some of these trends emerge along gender lines as well.

“The visual systems are different for every individual. But there are some characteristics that are more common in females and some that are more common in males. For example, 10% of guys are colorblind. And there is a small percentage of women that have four cones instead of the normal three cones. Which means they can see more variety in the colour.”

Overall Afsoon’s experience in tech has been positive so far, something she attributes to the team they’ve assembled and the environment they’ve found themselves in.

“It has been great. It comes down to having the right people, which I am fortunate enough to have. The first person is my co-founder Tara, she believed in me and brought me on board, we started this together. TandemLaunch, they are really great sponsors of first-time founders, they help you through all these ups and downs and make sure that you’re hitting milestones to deliver the proof of concept or whatever else is needed. And lastly our CEO Simon Morris, who has been a believer and supporter of us too.”

And although both scientific academia and the tech sector have been traditionally male-dominated, she notes that there has definitely been positive tangible change in the last few years.

“I did a PhD in physics, so I had to face the same issues even in university. We did not have many female physicists either, so maybe in my department there were only 2 professors who were female and the rest of the department and usually the head of department was always guys. It is starting to change. We were very fortunate. We found the right environment that really fostered women entrepreneurs. And I’m not saying we did not face any, I don’t want to call it discrimination, but resistance, we pushed through all those difficulties. Normally the standards are pretty high for women. It’s higher than for any other guy. And the way women perform and talk and think, it’s different. It could be better, definitely, but I believe all of us girls have to be able to push through all of those difficult times and support each other and mentor each other and make even more successful ventures.”

Have you read the rest of the WMNinTECH series?
Caterina Rizzi trailblazes a path for women techies in Montreal – March 29
Angelique Mannella on taking chances and being open to unexpected opportunities – April 5
Magaly Charbonneau proves that with organization and drive you can have it all – May 2
Naomi Goldapple on pursuing passion in business – May 29
Pascale Audette on making a change – June 6
Anna Goodson wants young entrepreneurs to know there are options – June 13
Chic Marie-Philip Simard on the transition from law to tech – July 19


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