Finding harmony while building a new venture

BY MARK REVINGTON
Last updated 10:40 12/07/2010

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Imagine teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. Dr William Thorpe set up Cantovation in 2004 to do just that.

The Sing and See software sold by Cantovation originated from a research project he did while at Sydney University which examined how visual technology could improve singing training.

By using sophisticated real-time audio and visual processing algorithms, the Sing and See software showed students when they had perfect pitch.

Feedback from students involved in the trial encouraged Dr Thorpe that he had a hit on his hands. "It's one thing to hear your singing teacher tell you that you are singing out of tune," says Dr Thorpe, who sings himself.

"It's another to have your voice so accurately analysed that soft- ware can show you when, where and how much you were off key. The evidence is staring you in the face."

With a PhD in electrical engineering and a background in research and software development for signal processing applications in speech, bio-medical, singing and music, he decided to go into business.

Starting a company had been a dream for a while because he wanted to be his own boss. "I saw it as a way to grow and leverage the skills I had to make money and contribute to the world a little by helping people to sing better. I get a lot of feedback from people thanking me for helping them."

Just over five years later, he's the virtual entrepreneur in residence at the eCentre Massey Business Incubator on Auckland's North Shore. That means he gets to mostly work from home and hot desk once a week at the eCentre, mixing with other entrepreneurs and getting mentoring from chief executive Steve Corbett.

The firm has taken longer to grow than he expected. Cantovation has had to overcome the suspicion of technology in traditional singing teaching circles.

But the company sells its software as a visual aid, not something replacing teachers. "Because it is a new technology for singing education, people have to be ready to accept the use of computers. I think we are just getting to that point on a larger scale."

Most sales have been overseas, using the internet as a marketing tool. Now he's starting to focus locally. With no outside investor in the company, he's been bootstrapping, keeping a careful eye on costs while expanding it organically. "I'm still at the stage where there's enough revenue for me but not to drive growth."

Would he take on outside investment? That's a question he revisits every few months, he says. It's a matter of getting the right fit.

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And how large is the market for singing teachers and students who want to use the software?

"The thing with singing education is that it's quite a niche market, although there are attractive possibilities like Sing Star or Idol TV in that space. You think if you just got the right product or tap into that market, I could make it big."

Next week: A business mentor gives their take on Cantovation's prospects.

Mark Revington edits Unlimited magazine.

- The Dominion Post

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