New Folder Consulting
May 2013 | By Karyn Hede
Q & A with founders Prof. Leslie Collins and Peter Torrione ECE MS, PhD'08
What it does: Develops and distributes statistical signal processing tools for decision-making and pattern recognition
Duke ECE Founders:
- Peter Torrione, ECE senior research scientist; ECE MSEE, PhD’08
- Leslie Collins, associate professor, ECE
- Chandra Throckmorton, ECE PhD
Dr. Collins, how do you develop student entrepreneurs?
My very first PhD student was Chandra Throckmorton, who also started the company with me. She worked on cochlear implants with me. One of the first things we did (within New Folder Consulting) was work with a company that had a sensor to detect middle ear effusion. They had developed an ultrasonic probe to detect fluid in the ear and determine its viscosity. The developer could look at the data and do the diagnostic. The problem was they had to have a human in the loop. This is what happens with a whole lot of our projects. People come to us and say, “We’ve only got one guy in the company who can look at the data and give us the answer. Can you automate this process?” That’s what we do.
How common is it for undergraduate students to jump in and get involved in a research project?
Collins: The undergrads in the lab are self-selected. They’re either in the Pratt Fellows Program or, for example, I’m teaching an image processing class and an undergrad will come up to me and ask to work in the lab for awhile. We’ve got two undergrads in the lab right now doing just that. We keep hoping they will get excited and join us at New Folder Consulting after graduation.
Dr. Torrione, what did you get out of your experience at Duke?
Every faculty member I met at Duke was involved in cutting-edge research but was also excited to talk to students, to sit down and explain what they were doing. They were all eager to push students to be creative and get involved in fun projects. If you can’t find something to be interested in here, you can’t find something to be interested in anywhere.
What did you think you would do after grad school?
Torrione: When I went to grad school I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to what I was going to do afterwards. I thought I would go into industry, working at a big corporation. But getting a graduate degree at Duke opened up a lot of opportunities for people to go out on their own and become independent.
Where does the confidence to go out and start a company come from?
Torrione: If you asked anybody who knew me if I was the kind of person to go out and start a business, they would have told you “absolutely not.” The confidence, I think the word I’m looking for is hutzpah, to start a business comes from the network we’ve built through the other universities we work with and the industry partners we work with, and the example of other entrepreneurs who’ve come out of Duke, started companies and been successful.
How did you get the company off the ground?
Torrione: Because we are a signal processing and data analysis firm, our start-up costs were extremely low. We were very fortunate to have contacts at Signal Innovations Group, which is another Duke spin-off, who helped us out in developing our first consulting contracts. Since then, it’s just been a matter of making contacts and being able to make the case that we can help.
Our job is to help that company develop algorithms that will automatically discriminate between what they are trying to detect and what they are not trying to detect. Typically, our customers are chemical engineers or electrical engineers; they are not typically machine-learning specialist or statistical specialists. That’s what we do.
What sets you apart from other consulting groups that do similar work?
Torrione: Because we have our roots in the university, we are at the cutting edge of the technology and what’s possible. But we couple that with a focus on making things that work in the real world and not just pushing symbols around on a piece of paper. I got my PhD making software running on a landmine detection system that is operating in Iraq and Afghanistan right now.