Almost Famous: Elemental Technologies' Sam Blackman
A new feature wherein All Things Digital looks at up-and-coming and innovative start-ups you should know about.
This week: We caught up with Sam Blackman, CEO of Elemental Technologies at the San Francisco NewTeeVee Live conference.
Elemental Technologies hopes to become a major player in the future of online and over-the-air video through its high-performance encoding technology.
Who: Sam Blackman
What: CEO and Chairman of Elemental Technologies.
Why: People want to watch live video on all their devices. Making a new version of a given video for every device is time- and processor-intensive. Elemental says it can replace up to five existing dedicated servers with one of its own, based on its proprietary software.
Who else: Sam says, “We’re the first-ever company to take advantage of GPUs for video processing,” but Nvidia (NVDA) is the key hardware player.
Five Stats You Won’t Find in His Facebook Profile
Worst Job: Barista. Late for the Trolley coffee. It had this really abusive owner. He’d yell at us if we gave a half-pump too much flavoring.
Gadget of the Moment: Lenovo X301. It’s all about the keyboard.
Early Geek Influence: Jack Dudman. He was a neighbor growing up and was Steve Jobs’s math teacher at Reed College.
Wishes There Was an App for That: A really smart public transit app. Like one that knows where I am and can tell me which of the options near me I can go to, to get to my destination fastest.
Sport You Can’t Live Without: Ultimate Frisbee
Bio in 140 Characters
Raised in Oregon. EE at Brown. Time at Intel, then Pixelworks. Left to start Elemental Technologies. Loves work, kids and Ultimate Frisbee.
The Five Questions
Elemental’s products seem pretty hardcore geeky. Break it down for me.
The man on the street today wants to view video on any device at any time. The content owners of that video need to be able to format the video differently for each type of device ["transcoding"]. We make that process much cheaper. At the beginning, we saw that there was going to be a huge increase in the amount of video produced out there, but that it was hard to distribute.
Right now it’s really hard [lots of equipment and time] to create, say, 240 versions of every video [so that they can be viewed quickly on an iPhone and in HD on a laptop, for instance]. Four to five regular CPU [central processing unit] servers can be replaced by one of our servers with a GPU [graphical processing unit] and our software. That means far less cost for businesses and many more video options for the consumer.
Device variations are just exploding. How do you see the changing landscape moving your business?
I don’t see the number of video formats decreasing at all. Every company that [produces] a device wants to control delivery to it. No one is going to dominate the cellphone market. It’s just too big. You can get three percent and have a nice business. As long as that is the way the game is played, our products will be very desirable.
Why are you going to be the first software company to acquire an auto body shop?
That’s my dream. The way our product works is, when we take an order, we just submit the hardware request to Dell (DELL). They plug in a GPU. We take the box and add our software.
The funny story is that we wanted a more custom look, so we found this auto body shop in Portland that takes the bezels [rack server face plates], sands them, cleans them, repaints them and sends them back. They look beautiful, like tons of engineering went into it. Dell will do that for you, but its 20 grand, and we’re a start-up. That’s my dream, a company that doesn’t have any employees who drive to work but owns an auto body shop.
Every geek has a memory where they saw something new and had to say to themselves, “Dang, I love living in the future.” What’s yours?
I know exactly what that was. Turtle graphics. My mother put me in a programming class in kindergarten, and there was this thing called LOGO [where you could use computer instructions to make an onscreen turtle draw something]. I had an hour class where I figured out how to draw a square. I went home that night and wrote down on paper a program that would draw the American flag.
My neighbor had an Apple (AAPL) IIc that I used to input that first program. I probably stayed up all night as a six-year-old doing that and that was it for me. What a genius idea. I mean, kids love seeing results, and there were no visual results [from programming] for a long time. LOGO was the first thing where you could spend about an hour and get visual results.
What tech war are you watching most closely?
There’s a battle looming between Intel (INTC) and Nvidia, as Intel releases their own GPU architecture. We’re trying to be really well-positioned to benefit from that arms race of the FLOPS [the processing performance unit].