From the thrum of heating and ventilation units to the thump of home theaters, the noise of fellow humans at work and play is increasingly hard to escape.
Even in remote areas, such as the wilderness around California’s Lake Tahoe, the drone of hot tubs, speed boats and distant road traffic carries into the mountains for miles. In cities like New York and Beijing, where the din is overwhelming, noise complaints top the list of quality of life concerns.
For regular people, unwanted noise is a scourge and a health hazard. But for Silentium, a startup based in central Israel, it’s the sound of opportunity. For more than a decade, Silentium’s engineers have been working on a computer chip that can wipe out unwanted noise by cancelling its sound waves.
The hush Silentium’s chip produces can seem like magic. But the trick is no sleight of hand. The effect is the result of complex algorithms grounded in physics and statistics. “Noise has a known statistical behavior, to some degree,” says Yossi Barath, Silentium’s CEO. “The more that behavior is known, the better we can reduce the noise.”
Silentium’s solution comes in three parts. First, a microphone picks up ambient noise. The Silentium chip then analyzes the noise and figures out the opposite acoustical pattern. Finally, a speaker delivers a mirror image of the sound that the microphone is hearing. The sound waves cancel each other out, and in place of a deafening rumble, there is silence.
The idea isn’t new. Familiar noise-cancelling headphones, for example, take a similar approach. Silentium’s breakthrough is in developing a small, low-cost solution that doesn’t require headphones.
Colin Nurse, a senior manager at Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, first heard Silentium’s pitch around three years ago. Time was short, and Nurse had an urgent assignment to complete. Customers were complaining that one of Siemen’s medical diagnostics machines was too loud, and the company was starting to lose sales. A mechanical engineer with more than two decades of experience, Nurse was new to anti-noise technology. A review of companies who advertised solutions had left him discouraged. “You find that many are really frauds or imposters,” he said.
At first Nurse was dubious of Silentium’s claim that by making more sound they could actually make less noise. However, as Nurse probed Silentium’s technology, he became increasingly convinced that its theory of active noise control could be translated into effective engineering. He organized a bake-off of noise-control technologies and invited Silentium to participate. Hearing was believing. “There is no question the technology is sound,” Nurse said. “Five years from now, this will make our world a pleasure to live in with regard to noise.”
In addition to working with Siemens, Silentium recently went to market with Faber, an Italian company that claims to have invented the first kitchen extraction hood in 1958. Faber has since become one of the world’s leading makers of kitchen hoods. About a year ago, Faber started selling ultra-quiet kitchen hoods using Silentium’s technology. More products with quiet features are expected to be announced this year.
“There are a billion products that are made every year that have a noise problem that in theory could use Silentium,” said Ben Weiss, a portfolio manager at Heliant Ventures, a venture capital fund based in Hong Kong that has invested in Silentium.
The challenge for Silentium is to figure out which industries to target first. “You have noise everywhere. Noise is a major polluter,” Barath said. “People approach us with noise issues, and we have to choose which to address because we can not do everything at once.”
The company has already gained acceptance in data centers, where its chip is valued for its ability to reduce server noise without affecting airflow. Silentium has also found a receptive audience in the transportation industry. Barath said the company is working with a variety of automotive and aerospace seat makers who are gearing up to manufacture noise-cancelling headrests. The idea, Barath explains, is to create a quiet bubble that lets a person enjoy desired sounds, like music or a movie, without having to suffer the roar of engines and other aural assaults.
Barath envisions the “quiet bubble” eventually becoming a consumer product, built in to pillows and headboards to combat snoring and other sleep disruptors.
Silentium has raised $18 million from investors like SMI/Naor, an investment firm based in Toronto, Terra Venture Partners, based in Israel, Blue Coast Private Equity, based in the UK and Heliant Ventures. Barath is currently raising a third round of funding.
Harold Weiner, a general partner at Terra Venture Partners, said an IPO could be in the cards in the next year or two. But not before Silentium becomes a well-known brand. “We first want to go to the market with all those products in trains and cars, air conditioners and computers,” Weiner said. With so much opportunity ahead, an exit plan can wait.
Written by: Elise Ackerman