Nick Freer: Let’s give a big cheer to Two Big Ears

Two Big Ears co-founder Varun Nair. Picture: Contributed
Two Big Ears co-founder Varun Nair. Picture: Contributed
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Back in March, I wrote in these pages that Mark Zuckerberg taking an interest in Scotland’s tech scene might be just the kind of happening that would help to elevate the profile of our start-up ecosystem on the world map.

Boom! At the end of last month came the news that a relatively small start-up that not too many people in Scotland had heard about – 3D audio pioneer Two Big Ears – had been snapped up by Zuckerberg’s Facebook for an undisclosed amount.

I’ve been lucky enough to know Two Big Ears’ founders, Abesh and Varun, for a few years now. A guy from Scottish Enterprise – I’ll come back to it later – put us in touch and the enthusiasm they exuded at our first meeting was contagious. Like the very best founders I’ve come across, they combined a razor-sharp vision with a humbleness and generosity of character that made you believe their story even more.

There are ancillary stories running alongside the main one here, not least how two young men from India came to this country because they saw the opportunity to build something great here. And my goodness, haven’t they done that. The core team of four – crammed into a small office above a restaurant in Edinburgh’s West End – has developed a product so compelling that word on the street has it that the Two Big Ears unit could very possibly help lead Facebook’s product development in immersive audio technologies.

Coming back to Scottish Enterprise, which doesn’t always get the credit it deserves, you really have to take your hat off to the enterprise agency and a particular member of its team on this occasion. The individual, who asked not to be named in this article, worked hard behind the scenes in the fledgling days of Two Big Ears to put Abesh and Varun in touch with a cast of leading figures in the business and tech scene, many of whom found ways of helping the guys turn their dreams into virtual reality.

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Scottish business luminaries like Neil Heywood and George Elliott provided office space and advice to Two Big Ears in the early days, going on to become part of the executive and non-executive team, while WPP-owned tech firm Cortex, founded by managing director Peter Proud, provided its very first office space at Waverley Gate for free. The connections Neil, George and other people made for the founders helped speed up the process of getting the product to market and making an impression with the right people in the right places. Informatics Ventures deserve a mention too, helping to guide Abesh and Varun through the thicket that is the life of an early-stage technology company.

There are other vignettes around Two Big Ears that will come out over time; but if there is a legacy here it would be around our ability to create world-beating technology talent and products right here in Scotland. Is it a shame that the likelihood is that the Two Big Ears guys will end up relocating to Facebook’s Frank Gehry-designed headquarters in Menlo Park, California, before the year is out? On one hand, yes of course, as we want to be able to scale technology businesses from a base in Scotland. On the other hand, it’s hard not to simply stand up and cheer – one big, old cheer for Two Big Ears.

Who would want to deny these most likeable and brilliant guys the chance to mix it with Oculus and all the other amazing, immersive technologies that are being developed by Zuckerberg et al over in northern California?

India, via Scotland and one of our finest universities, to Silicon Valley. It’s such a brilliant story, for close observers almost one that brings a tear to the eye. A happy tear that is – one borne from all the hard work and toil you’ve seen go on behind the scenes and how immensely satisfying it is when a great idea translates to probably the most promising virtual audio product on the planet.

When Sequoia Capital chairman Sir Michael Moritz jets into Edinburgh for next year’s EIE investor conference, it’s safe to guess that other virtual audio technology startups will be to the fore. Whether or not Two Big Ears stays or goes, Scotland has now established its place at the top table in the area of immersive audio technologies.

People in the know say fellow Edinburgh firms Krotos and Speech Graphics are the players to watch in this space. Remember, you heard it here first.

• Nick Freer is the managing director and founder of the Freer Consultancy