Spencer Topel of Physical Synthesis Answers Four Questions for Founders
Physical Synthesis invents products and systems bridging virtual and real environments. We see the deployment of our designs in nearly every industry, from musical instruments and consumer electronics to vehicles and buildings of the future. On a fundamental level, we aim to shift and disrupt sound, light, and touch technologies through new methods that challenge long-standing approaches to interaction.
1. Why did you start Physical Synthesis? Do you remember the moment when you first thought of the idea?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Both my father and grandfather started and run/ran their own businesses successfully, so when I saw the opportunity to move from higher education as a professor of music and technology to the more fast-paced and rewarding environment of business, I went for it.
The particular eureka moment for Physical Synthesis came while I was researching how it might be possible to generate sounds heard in electronic music with physical systems and acoustic musical instruments. Following several years of academic research at Dartmouth College, my team of gifted students and I discovered such a method. It was at this point that I realized the bridges from electrical signals to physical systems needed a big dose of innovation.
2. How do you see Physical Synthesis impacting how we live our lives?
Being at Newlab has opened up the possibilities of what impact can mean for our venture. Since joining in July, we’ve had a number of member companies approach us to collaborate, design, and consult. I think this points to a fundamental need to address sound in every aspect of product design, interior/exterior design, and the deployment of human interactive elements in spaces and architectures. For example, in 2025, the voice-coil speaker patent will be 100 years old. Despite its amazing success, it really hasn’t changed all that much since. At Physical Synthesis, we believe we can do better.
3. How has New York and Newlab positively impacted the development of your business?
A lot of people say this, but it’s true: an essential resource at Newlab is the community. In many ways, Newlab has a small-town feel, even though it’s in The City. The founders and CEO’s all know of each other and many of the individuals who work and contract for them. When I need guidance concerning aspects of my business that can’t be answered by the very capable Newlab staff, I can meet with individuals from other companies at every level of their careers and expertise who ready to help. For this reason, it very much feels like a place where anything is possible. The resources offered by this community are invaluable to Physical Synthesis and continues to aid directly in breakthroughs for our business development, as well as product and design processes. As I spend more time here, I continue to meet individuals who want to make the world a better place, it is truly inspiring.
4. What do you see as your responsibility to make technology ethical and accessible to all?
Access to technology starts with education and equity in the design process, and for this reason, I think it’s great that so many young people from local school programs happen at Newlab. Just last week, one of our designers spoke with students about a particular design challenge we’re currently facing. Those students get to see how the thought process works on actual devices planned for the market. In terms of ethics, I believe in trying to find the most efficient and energy-saving processes for making our products. I think constantly about how the scale of production impacts the environment, and how the consumer electronics industry as a whole can do a better job of delivering excellent products without doing harm.
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