Founders Interviews: Nuno Fonseca of Sound Particles

Former academic, Nuno Fonseca started Sound Particles as a fun personal project. 5 years later, the software has been used in major productions such as Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Frozen and Dune, which has recently won the Oscar for Best Sound at the 2022 Academy Awards. The company has just raised a €2.5M Seed round, in which Indico co-invested.

We spoke to the Founder about what the road here has been like and what’s coming next for Sound Particles.

*This interview has been slightly edited and adapted for reading ease.

First, I’d like to know a bit about your background, and the path that led you to Sound Particles today.

For many years, I was a university professor; I was teaching computer science at Polytechnic Institute of Leiria (IPL) and Music Engineering at Lisbon Music School (ESML). I’ve always had this duality of computer science and mathematics on one side, and music and sound, on the other. Then, about 15 years ago, I realised the best visual effects I saw in movies used a technique called particle system, where millions of small dots were created, and I thought it would be interesting to use the same thing for sound. So we could create millions of little sounds, to create amazing soundscapes. At the time it was only an idea, of course, but then in 2012 I finished my PhD and, because I’m a nerd, I decided to create my own simulator of ‘sound particles’.

In 2014, I was going to attend a conference in Los Angeles, so before I went I sent a few emails to 5 or 6 people working in [Hollywood] studios saying ‘I’m working on this and I think it could be interesting for big productions’. The first reply was from Skywalker Sound — the studio created by George Lucas for Star Wars — inviting me to do a presentation there. In the span of 6 months, I ended up speaking at Sony, Universal, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and later at Pixar, Apple, Google… That was the beginning of the journey; I started developing the software, then started selling it, and eventually decided to incorporate. At some point I decided, ‘let’s find investment, so we can accelerate the whole process’ and that’s how this all began.

Sound Particles was used on Dune, winner of the Best Sound Academy Award in 2022

What do you think was the most crucial moment for Sound Particles, as a startup?

To me, the most crucial moment was the deciding whether I would start the company or not. Meaning, do I make this an interesting personal project, or am I going to incorporate and give up exclusivity? Because as an exclusively higher education professor, I had a better salary. So that was the big thing to overcome. Afterwards, finding clients, or a team, or investors, that was easier.

Before that, another important moment was when I went to Los Angeles and started talking to professionals in the studios and receiving their positive feedback and openness to the idea. That was obviously very important because it validated that there was an interest [in the product]. It wasn’t just a silly idea. It’s like, what were the odds of someone in Leiria making a software for Hollywood studios and productions? But sometimes you have to be naïve, or conceited, depending on how you look at it. So, I would say these were the 2 crucial moments: in 2014 going to Skywalker Sound, which is the best sound studio for cinema in the world, and then finally deciding to create the company.

What advice would you give someone who’s starting a startup, in terms of business strategy or marketing?

I like a top-down approach, meaning, starting from the top of the market. I think it’s easier to start there and then try to come down, than starting at the bottom and every time you try to go a little bit further up, it’s a battle. The top-down approach is beneficial because it gives you instant traction, and you can use that from a marketing standpoint. You can tell your potential clients, or potential investors, ‘Sound Particles was used in Star Wars’ and that unlocks a lot of things for you. Sometimes, people are afraid of starting from the top and think it’s easier to start below, but from my experience it’s not necessarily difficult to start from the top. My advice is to consider this top-down approach: start with that key client that will give you visibility, traction, validation. Instead of trying the constant growth, one-step-at-a-time approach, which can make the process much longer.

Sound Particles was used on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

What would you do differently?

I would’ve started sooner. I wouldn’t have waited so long to start the project. That’s the one thing I would do differently. I waited too many years.

What’s the best part of having a startup? And the most challenging part?

The best part is having a vision and making it come true. You can have a vision of the world, of a technology, or whatever it is, and [founders] can put that vision into practice. You can’t do it alone, and in the context of working in another company, it might be hard, because you have to convince a number of people above you and probably your vision will get distorted. [In a startup] you have a vision and you make it come true. The hardest part, I would say is the pressure. Typically, [founders] are very ambitious, we have ambitious goals, so it’s a lot of pressure. We have a team, we have investors, we have clients, and these are small barriers because it’s not a super established or mature organisation. There’s a lot of sweat and tears. But, going back to the benefits, you get to implement your vision, which is really interesting.

Sound Particles was used on TV series Game of Thrones

Lastly, what can we expect from Sound Particles now that you have raised a €2,5M seed round?

This round will allow us to speed up technology, product and business development. We will open an office in Los Angeles, which will be very important, because it will allow us to be in close proximity to the core of the entertainment industry.

From a technological standpoint, our new 3D sound solution for headphones has an enormous marketability. Right now, the whole industry is looking for a 3D sound solution that works for the traditional consumer, as well as for streaming, videogames, the Metaverse or music. It will be the new audio ‘holy grail’.

And finally, we want to have an even closer relationship with the sound and music professionals and creatives, who make our lives more interesting, by offering them even more exciting solutions to work on sound, be it for film and TV post-production, for VR/AR and the Metaverse, or for the music market. The new generation of Sound Particles, its plugins and our new marketplace will consolidate our position as a key player in this area.

What we have done so far was only the tip of the iceberg, we’re just getting started.

*Interview and translation by Matilde Castro

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Indico Capital Partners

Indico Capital Partners

Leading early stage VC based in Lisbon, Portugal