Faculty Entrepreneurs: Meet Ken Perlin

Meet Kenneth H. "Ken" Perlin: professor in the Department of Computer Science at New York University, founding director of the Media Research Lab at NYU, and the Director of the Games for Learning Institute. He is a serial entrepreneur and the inventor of Perlin noise. He received an Academy Award for Technical Achievement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his noise and turbulence procedural texturing techniques, which are widely used in feature films and television

Professor Perlin is currently working on a product that doesn’t yet exist in today’s marketplace: a thin mat that can cover any surface and give images of pressure. The implications of Perlin’s innovation can lead to a deeper understanding of how people exercise, new ways of thinking about computer game interfaces and progress in highly responsive wall displays and more. The Tactonic sensor enables computers to help people by measuring human movements like force, weight, and balance in ways that can’t be done with other technology.

We sat down with Ken Perlin to learn a little bit more about him. This post is the first in our new Faculty Entrepreneurs series, sharing their experiences commercializing their academic research via startups.

When did you first begin to think about becoming an entrepreneur?

I began programming as soon as I could get my hands on a computer. At the age of 12, I began a journey that led to a career in a computer graphics production, and ultimately, a computer science PhD. After starting my career in industry, I switched to academia because I wanted to be around people who thought that thinking for thinking’s sake is a good thing.

By working in the industry, I gained a sense of pragmatism and sensibility that ultimately translated to my work in academia. In industry, the product you’re working on has to be used by someone -- and soon. I’ve always had a bias that I wanted to create things that people would use. Working in a commercial company, you learn how to get things done. If you can communicate your idea by building a program in a day, do it. It’s better to build it than to wait until you have something perfect.

What did you learn from founding Touchco and being acquired by Amazon?

I learned that it’s good to have really brilliant graduate students. Ilya Rosenberg deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the success of that company. One of the hardest parts of acquisition is shutting down other opportunities. At some point, you can’t back out because the money is on the table. We worked hard and we got lucky. Of course, the harder we worked the luckier we got.

How does your faculty research align with your work and aspirations as an entrepreneur? Where do they overlap and where do they diverge?

The invention of writing of thousands of year ago was a technological invention. So is the web. People like me invent media. Everything that I do academically is eventually hoping to create new types of media. That payoff could take decades. Myron Krueger invented “pinch to zoom” 31 years ago. Then, much later, Apple “invented” it again. In academia, you have the freedom to work on all of these things before the pieces of reality fall into place. In industry, you are only able to work on things that are currently economically sustainable, which is a different challenge.

I don’t see a tension between them because different ideas express themselves differently. Rather than choosing which to work on, I just identify which is which and work on it either in academia or in industry. NYU allows you to nurture those ideas in either direction. The Institute has helped foster companies that spin off of research by bringing a fresh perspective to the process. It guides faculty in understanding what makes a viable business and gives them the resources they need so they don’t have to do it on their own.

What was the biggest mistake you made in your career and what did you learn from it?

The most useful mistake I ever made was going to work for a major production company. A year into it, I realized that they didn’t understand the nature of my work. They weren’t giving me enough resources to succeed. That mistake helped me move into academia and ultimately helped me realize that we all need adequate tools to be the best versions of ourselves.

Why do think you commercialize your research and so many other faculty/researchers don’t?

The nature of what some people do tends to align with what makes sense in the marketplace, but that’s not true for everybody. People have different interests and want to do what they love. Ultimately, people should work on the things that excite them. If I saw Michael Jordan playing basketball, I wouldn’t say, “Oh wow, you’re so good at that. Now you should go write songs!” I’m all for people exploring, but they shouldn’t have to do what they feel obligated to do. Do what excites you.

If you could give one piece of advice to a budding entrepreneur, what would it be?

Only the coolest ideas win in academia. But in the industry, what wins is what the market wants. Academics need to unlearn that everyone wants the coolest idea. What wins is the idea that’s packaged in the way that solves the customers’ problems.