Dr. Maya Ackerman, CEO/Co-Founder of WaveAI, highly-regarded computer science professor, leading expert on computer creativity, and opera singer, is upending the songwriting industry with the first AI-based technology that makes songwriting widely accessible to everyone. Dr. Ackerman’s research allowed her to develop ALYSIA (www.withalysia.com), a machine-learning based system that allows anyone, regardless of their musical expertise, to create original songs in minutes.
By developing new AI technology that makes songwriting widely accessible, Dr. Ackerman and her team at WaveAI stand to revolutionize the music industry, spanning from classical to electronic music. Her team is currently putting together the world’s first opera set to computer generated songs.
Dr. Ackerman specializes in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Computational Creativity with over 26 publications in leading venues. She has been on the program committee of all leading AI conferences and journals and won numerous awards for her research.
Intro speaker 0:04
Welcome to Silicon Valley successes, we interview experts and entrepreneurs to give the world access to the knowledge and experience that is here in Silicon Valley. Our mission is to create opportunities for those who seek them
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Shawn Flynn 0:24
Welcome to Silicon Valley successes over the last couple weeks, we've had investment bankers, we've had marketing experts. But today we have a very special guest. We have the founder of an amazing start up here in Silicon Valley as our guest now instead of me, introducing Maya, I'll let her introduce herself. Maya, could you please tell the audience a little bit about your company and who you are?
Maya Acherman 0:46
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you very much, john. It's such a pleasure to be here. So I'm in AI and machine learning professor and during my PhD, I learn how to sing opera. Wow. which ended up leading to me becoming the co founder and CEO of way they, I went created a songwriting AI Okay, and we're actually inviting people to join our beta right now. Okay, yeah, so that's actually you should join our beta i will see
Shawn Flynn 1:10
you can make my voice sound okay. Then the products amazing.
Maya Acherman 1:14
It'll help you compose your song was lyrics and everything, and then you can sing it. Or you can have somebody else sing it.
Shawn Flynn 1:21
So this product that you're making, is it something that's going to be used in karaoke bars, or at your house, or tell me the use case for it.
Maya Acherman 1:31
So it's it's a variety of cases. But it's essentially making up songs on which you do your own karaoke
karaoke on your own original songs. And what's really, really amazing is that it takes only about five minutes to write your own original song that's then ready to sing. Okay, so I've never written a song, then you're telling me just see by using your app without years of training? Or that I can actually write and sing my own song?
Yes, exactly. In five minutes. Oh, wow. Yeah. So actually, anybody can do that. You just need to sign up at with elisa.com. Okay, say that one more time. With elisa.com, you sign up, and then we'll invite you to join our beta as we have more and more spaces available,
and we'll have you Sean joined the beta. Okay, that's going to be the exciting part.
Shawn Flynn 2:17
That sounds great. So hopefully, our audience at home, they'll all sign up for it. And you're gonna have to come back later after the beta test is done, and kind of tell us about all the progress that was made and how our audience helped you out. That would be wonderful. Okay. But in the meantime, though, I got a ton of questions for you about the whole startup ecosystem. What's it like to be a founder, what you've gone through what you thought being a startup founder would be like, and what it actually is, so let's just go with that question. What's it really like to be a founder of a company?
Maya Acherman 2:50
Shawn? That's a really, really fantastic question. You know, I think nobody really knows what it's like to be a founder of a company until they do it. Okay, you know, how, when people have kids, everybody tells them that it's really, really hard. But they think that their case is going to be different. Okay? So it's the same thing with the startup, you think, Oh, you know, I got this, I have all the relevant experience is going to be a brief we're going to be bought on day three.
Doing a startup is notoriously difficult, because nobody has done your startup before. Hopefully, you're not just imitating somebody else. So it's, you really have to pave a brand new road and figure it all out as you go along.
Shawn Flynn 3:35
And it's a it takes everything you have, okay, everything. So how long has your startup been around from the day that you came up with the idea to actually start working on it till today?
Maya Acherman 3:47
You know, I remember very clearly the day that I came up with the idea. Okay, I was at a conference International Conference on computational creativity.
Oh, that sounds like a fun conference.
Maya Acherman 3:57
Yeah, it is fantastic. Highly recommended. Actually, it's all about using the computer to create music and art and stories. It's amazing stuff. And somebody in passing said that, of course, a computer can be a co creative collaborator, of course, and then they sort of moved on and just everything stopped for me. I've been trying for three years at the time to write my own original song as an opera singer. Okay. And I couldn't, it just, I didn't have the gift or whatever it is that composers have. Yeah, wait, I can write for myself using machine learning, which, which I've had expertise for many years. Okay, I had my own songwriting assistant, and in that instance, and, you know, sometimes when you get so excited, you think maybe it's maybe I'm overreacting.
But it turned out to be as big an amazing I felt about the moment I got back home. I talked my co founder, David locker, and we had a prototype after about three months. Okay, well, let's go back. How did you meet your co founder on my kind of ever met at University of Waterloo, okay, years ago, and
he really from Canada, and then came to Silicon Valley,
originally from everywhere, but my education, the mercy of Waterloo, 12 years of in computer science, okay. I mean, I was wondering why everybody else doesn't study for 12 years back then. That's pretty common, right? Yes, Yes, we do. Okay.
Maya Acherman 5:11
Wasn't want to live. It's kind of like they're trying to be a Silicon Valley in Canada. Okay. Yeah. It's a really excellent University. It's, it's kind of like the Stanford of Canada. Oh, I'm impressed. Okay, so, so, okay.
You're at Waterloo came with this idea?
Maya Acherman 5:26
No, no, I come up with the idea was already a professor Florida State. Oh, okay. University. I met David, David, low carb, my CTO right now. Okay, at the University of Waterloo. And we've done many research papers together before then we did stuff with improving search engines we did stuff is cluster analysis, all kind of machine learning. Okay.
He was in Canada, you're in Florida. We're both
Maya Acherman 5:44
in Florida. So I talked to him after the conference. Okay. And we did this original prototype as a research project. Because, you know, you start with what, you know, okay, what I knew, for some reason, but the research doing brand new thing that nobody's done before, okay,
my life, right? And then you publish about it. And you're like, yeah, I published a paper you got into, like, a great conference, or a great journal. And people are giving you great feedback. And then you decided what accompanies this product with this product. We released it on archive, which is the equivalent of putting up a PDF file somewhere online. Oh, before it was even reviewed. I get this email from our New Scientist, okay, this person wants to write an exclusive about me for New Scientist because he found this PDF file and active and it's never happened to me. I did all this stuff on theoretical foundations of cluster analysis. Really amazing stuff, you know, mass proofs. Nobody wanted to write an article before for really, people
do music and journalists care. Yeah. So. So we did this, where does our we have this, you know, exclusive in New Scientist, and NBC news came or came in, we did an article as well. But then then the really great thing the people started emailing me, you know, rocker mind. Can I trial the CEOs? like, Well, okay,
not really. Do you had demand for your product before ever having a product? Yes. Okay. And then what was the tipping point that you're like, Okay, there's so much demand, I gotta do this. You know, the one advice I would give people is to move faster, okay.
Maya Acherman 7:19
Because in the beginning, I didn't do a startup to do a startup. Let's, let's make that perfectly clear. Okay, I did a start up because we discovered this thing, and the world has to have it, okay, it has to have it. And the only people who know how to do it are the people who did it. So we have to do it. And I think that's the only reason to do a startup because of how insanely difficult to do that if you have something that you must share with the world. Well, so that's how it came about. And so to be honest, I realized this has to be a startup almost right away. Yeah, the moment I came up with an idea, and then we had the early prototype after about three months, I started using it, our members, it's amazing day when, how long ago was this? Just, what, three years ago? Three years ago? Yeah, okay, go forward. Yeah. Okay. And remember that evening, David and I were, by the way after that we had Chris joined the startup as a founder, but this was very, very early was Chris roll white. Why bring him in.
He was my students. And he started he got involved in for still a research project super early, okay, kept the project alive, kept to the growing until we finally decided to start up. So he got in on the ground. Okay. So three years ago, a group of three people came together because of all this demand for a paper that they wrote to actually make it a reality,
basically. Yeah, but what it was graduate for two years. It was a research project that the moment that I realized it has to be a startup was when we had it. We had this very, very early prototype of Elisa and all it did back then. Which is amazing, and nobody's ever, ever been able to do it before is to take lyrics. Yeah, any lyrics in English and create vocal melodies for them? Well, let's say you type in it is so great to hang out with Sean, that sounds like a good lyric. Exactly. Okay, then it will give you I'm a melody like, it's so great to hang out with Shawn,
right, or that's how I would assign him.
Maya Acherman 9:10
So we got this original version, right? Yeah. And it was terrible. It was in the sense that there was no user interface with displaying no to normal notation. It had like, number of corresponding to each node. And I took it down to my piano and barely managed to read to create that melody. Okay. But suddenly, I could write songs. Okay. And which I could never before I tried for three years, and I couldn't solve the problem that you had. Yeah. Okay. And you knew other people would have the same problem? Yes. So. So team of three right now you're in Florida. When did you said to come to Silicon Valley? Why come to Silicon Valley? Why not go to Waterloo or someplace else? That's right. I actually spent a year living in Silicon Valley before what were you doing? I was I was actually a postdoc okay
at it. UC San Diego, and I commuted every week sounds like an amazing University, those alumni from the university probably top notch,
Maya Acherman 10:06
they are excellent. It was really one of the best years of my life, living in Los Gatos and flying every week to San Diego. And the whole year I tried to figure out why do I prefer Los Gatos or San Diego and I couldn't decide the whole year
I mean UCSD alumni for the record. Okay, okay, so.
So you were in Silicon Valley for a year teams in Florida, and you convinced them to move here. Why it's more, it's so expensive here, compared to Florida,
Maya Acherman 10:32
it took a while It took a while to bring everybody over here. Actually, Chris just recently joined us, he already finished his masters at Georgia Tech. Ok.
Shawn Flynn 10:42
And now we're all finally here. It was a process, you know, everybody had to get jobs here. Our first because, you know, with a startup, you don't make any money at first. Okay, so if everyone's work in how are you able to do your startup? Was it people had nine to five, and then you guys worked at nights and weekends? How do you guys plan to actually move forward? What was kind of the process? This
Maya Acherman 11:00
was a research project for two years. So we did it on the side for a while. And then with side of it stopped publishing papers about it. Okay.
Shawn Flynn 11:07
And start actually what actually happened to us as an investor on board. Okay, tell me about that. Well, how did you get that meeting with the investor has you get the funding? And what would that process look like, you know, think of a brand new startup, the advice you can give them for that,
Maya Acherman 11:23
my advice would be, don't wait for that investor. Oh, that actually would be my advice. My problem was, I didn't know how to start. There were no people in my life doing startups, okay. My parents are not business people. It's not, you know, I really don't come from the kind of background where you'd imagine me becoming a CEO. It was a very foreign concept.
And so I wanted to a few times we were thinking of, what, six months into the research projects that are core to us to do a startup out of it. Okay. And we sort of tried to form it and it didn't completely catch on and we moved on why didn't catch on, there wasn't a CEO or leader of the group for really, I think we weren't ready. I think that was we just we didn't have that.
No, I don't know. I mean, I don't want to make up reasons. I just don't know that point. Somehow it didn't stick. It's we knew we wanted to continue working on it. But it just stayed at the Richard project. And we didn't even officially decided to not do it a startup. It just sort of, we had the synergy for a while. And I sort of dissipate it for a bit. And then I kept thinking about it more and more I met up with this wonderful woman Her name is see mom helps helps a lot of women with branding and how long their dreams and she told me that I should go for it. If I'm thinking about it. That was kind of a beautiful meeting. Okay. And then she invited me I give a lot of talks and panels and I gave them gave a panel talk at Silicon Valley, it's already in Silicon Valley of the professor already here and Sema introduce me to somebody there in investment group, okay. And I gave them my card and I wasn't sure if they were ever going to call me back it was very ad hoc when compared to the kind have serious fundraising we've been doing recently to this investor group was just a bunch of people in a room and then you present it was just a dinner was it was so ad hoc, we got in a way, if you look, we got so lucky. It was literally a quick introduction after my panel. Okay, I see my introduced me to this person. I'm not even sure if she really knew them. She said, Here's mine. She has an amazing idea for a startup. Yeah, I gave him a card and send a few weeks later, it was a big gap. he emailed me. Yeah. Which is really amazing. Given how busy investors are. Yeah. And then we met up and then he said, he'll introduce me to some early stage investors. Okay, he
Shawn Flynn 13:36
introduced me to exactly one investor, kilowatt capital, and they made it an early investment. Before we talked about that investment. I just wanted to mention that if you want more information on the testers, and whole startup ecosystem here, please visit Silicon Valley successes, calm and information will be there and more. So let's go back to my Maya told me about that investor meeting.
Maya Acherman 13:58
That was I was so excited. I remember what was I felt like, suddenly, it could be real. Okay. I remember being unable to sleep. I remember being very nervous before talking to Eric on the phone. Okay. Eric doesn't know that. When you are going to talk to the phone. Did you know like, I'm going to ask him for money? Or I'm going to ask him to mentor Did you have any idea what you're going to say new that investors give money? That's all I knew back then. Good. I didn't realize that they can be amazing mentors, I was going to learn some of the best information from them. Okay. Um, I really didn't know it was it was kind of honest. But what I noticed is how nervous and excited I was about now this information that they could teach you. I mean, you're a professor of machine learning, is it more skills? Or is it more just business? Is it more connections? What type of information can they give you? Well, really, all of the above I'm doing a startup is it's different. It's kind of it's some of the skills of being a professor. transferable experience in managing people. I've been inspiring people doing original ideas, getting project to completion of thought about a star, about the business ecosystem, about the culture, even Oh, how you relate with business people is not the same way that you relate, because your colleagues for example, I will never forget how interested in investment meeting that was going very well. Yeah, the investor asked me to brag about myself, OK. And it really threw me off
because it's just in academia, you know, personally, you know, who you're talking to, okay,
based on their research paper. So their titles
Maya Acherman 15:25
like credential days, like you shouldn't have to tell anybody that you're an amazing researcher, that you've done some really important work that you know, that you're on the committee's reviewing on all the most important conferences and journal reviews, okay, for AI. Because, for me, people that I talked in academia know that about me, they know they've done find the foundational work and clustering they hear me talk for 10 minutes about my work. They know I'm amazing. So I don't have to say six. Like, okay, but the startup ecosystem brand new? No, I mean, they're not in my world, connect on LinkedIn with you. They're not Sean.
And also they're not in my industry, they might not know what does it mean to be a computer science professor? How does it How is it different from just having a PhD world of a difference? But okay, it's not fair of me to expect them all to know that. Okay,
Shawn Flynn 16:13
so you would you say that startup founders might have difficulty bragging about the or, or selling themselves, you just have to be honest about who you are, and understand that investors are not in your world, you simply need to tell them who you are in the clearest way possible. Okay, if people want more information on that, look at the episode where we interviewed doors from Silicon Valley speaks to a lot of great information on your presentation. But my police talk a little bit more about your encounter with investors. And what's happened since then. So this was this was a long time ago. So it can what capital really helped us get started. And it's it made it real. So I had a lot of super basic questions like, how do I open an entity? What kind of documents do they need? Really simple?
Maya Acherman 16:57
Yeah, but it's at first, it seems so obvious. I mean, right now, it seems so obvious. But back then you have zero experience with it. Nobody around you had any experience with it. When you go online, you get a whole bunch of controversial opinions, as far as the biggest problems was just googling you just get these extreme of people being sensational. And arguing really unusual perspectives. Yeah. When you just want the basics, okay. And books are often outdated. Yes.
Shawn Flynn 17:20
So I really found myself in this state where I needed advice of real people. Okay. And the mentors are that investor was the one giving you this real advice, yes. How'd you know, you could trust the investor and or not,
Maya Acherman 17:32
um, for the most part, I mean, I think I think part of it was that we were lucky, we really had a person who had our best interest in mind, who really believed in what we were doing overtime, I did learn pretty after a few months, that people really have different perspectives. Okay. But I do think that he, he really helped us get started on the right foot. Okay.
And then a few things in a few ways. We also got lucky. So we got a good lawyer pretty quickly. Okay,
Maya Acherman 17:57
so right now, if I have questions very often call my lawyer. We have him on retainer. Huge, amazing resource of the people I get along with really well, oh, what resources Did you outsource or go for this really helps your team a lawyer on retainer, an investor, that's a great mentor.
And we have we have more we also on eventually, you need to go back and look at your own network. In fact, that would be a better place to start. And I know better, so kinda burger, who is a, it's been a longtime friend and colleague, he's started 15 businesses, and many of which successfully up IPOs and sold very well. So he is right now or advisor. Okay, so how you go about finding your advisors. So so he was in our network, okay, so it's sometimes even if you're pretty well connected, you might not people for down to business, sometimes they're not used to even using their own network, because you're not used to thinking like that, because in regular jobs even have the professor job, which is fairly flexible, it's somewhat similar to having a business it's a lot more structured, we don't even realize how much structure there is in our lives until there is nobody above you and your company. There is nobody to blame. There is nobody to you know, there is nobody to share their Well, I have co founders. But still there is nobody above me. Yeah,
Shawn Flynn 19:12
then I can sort of defer to or how far out that switch go from being the professor where you had people you had to report you to now be in the boss, how is that transition,
it's, um, it's very interesting.
Maya Acherman 19:25
Overall, I think I like it. I think it fits who I am. And it's a kind of a very kind of healthy progression in my career. Okay.
But in a way, there is a very interesting self redefinition that happens, it's very profound, okay. I've found a lot of time finding myself thinking, feel like I'm rediscovering who I am. How was that switch with your co founders, from going from colleagues at the university to now kind of being their boss. So my co founders, I think that's that. And everybody says that co founders are key and getting along with your co founders is life or death, okay. Is everything and I love my co founders. We were doing the advice at some point, we're doing a yc videos. Yeah. And we found ourselves having somewhere so much fun doing it that we almost put in bloopers. So this there is nothing more important than just fundamentally getting along with them. Okay. And is there any problems, any disagreements treated like, like a marriage, solve the problems, talk it out, because you want to get back to smooth as quickly as you possibly can?
Shawn Flynn 20:27
Yeah, yeah. So that's, that's Central. The fact that my co founders and are such a great team, we're great as a as a three people. And we're also great in Paris. Okay, that really helps what happens when you want to add people to your team? How have you gone about doing that? Because I mean, a three person teams not going to make a billion dollar business, I mean, come close. But I mean, how have you gone about adding new people was thought process been to add new people to the team. So hiring is is very, very complicated.
Maya Acherman 20:56
It definitely is definitely much easier when you have more resources already noticing, it's no surprise for anybody. But you really can get some good people before you have resources to work for equity. Happily, what does that look like when you talk to them? So it's a it's a process. So for example, we were very, very fortunate to have a producer sound designer Dustin arrived there who joined very early and what I did what I felt comfortable doing, and it's actually something that I learned as a professor trial periods. Yeah. So even though we had hardly any money, okay, we gave him a little bit of money to do a one month contract to see how we get along before giving equity. Yeah,
and that was a very, very smart way to go. Yeah, that is trial period, money, then equity.
Maya Acherman 21:38
Yeah. Because if you can afford money, or thrive, by all means, why don't you know, until then, and he's been fantastic. He just there, you know, really there with us, really one of us really wanting to see the company succeed in any way, help in any way possible. And those are the kind of people you want, people are going to be like, I'm doing x, y, z period, because that's because it's a startup. And if you guys are, you know, we stay up to three o'clock in the morning regularly. This is just, this is just a regular life. Somebody asked a some recently actually a really good friend. So what are your soft hours? Like, we plan time off? We don't plan time on Yeah, we climb like, okay, we're getting burnt out. We need an hour off. Okay. And how does that look for, for the team to come together and say, guys, we need to just rest a little bit or does that not even happy? And people always go, go, go. I mean, what do you see that burnout? Well, if we are, you know, getting very tired with the water time, all three of us are starting to get migraines. Oh, we were right.
I get migraines all the time. But my co founders don't say was very kind of, I thought, Okay, guys, let's, I think, you know, next weekend, let's take it easier not to work quite as much. Okay, just so we can reset, you know, because we need ourselves to be healthy. So that kind of moderation, but also we really care about each other. So we don't want to push each other to, you know, too far either. We know that we care so much. We're gonna do whatever we can. Anyway. So would you say once you do a startup, like truly do a start, there's really no work life balance or
work life balance. I
think that says it all.
What type of time commitment is a startup? I mean, for people that think it's all glory,
glory, somebody thinks it's all glory. A lot of people do. Awesome. Yeah,
I should have a nice, yeah, I live on a boat. There you go
live on a boat. I think if your goal is to live on a boat, there are much better ways to get
Maya Acherman 23:26
easier ways to make money, Silicon Valley much easier ways. But it's just not. It's not about it's not about the money because money is part of it. It's a package deal. Because you can succeed with a startup, you don't care about money, fundamentally, right? But if you just care about the money, there are better ways. Okay,
let's go back. So right now, finding investors, what are the next steps for you? What are you working on? you're finishing up around. Okay, that's, that's really, really exciting. Did you go I know, you can't go into too much detail. But can you talk about that, that process have presented pitch decks, getting that together, meet investors that a little bit more detail. Honestly, I've never given the same talk so many times in my life. What's really amazing is that when I look at you, and I'm about to tell you about my company, I forget everything ever said about it. And I just want to explain to Sean what I've done. Oh, gotta keep it fresh.
Otherwise, you're gonna die from board. But Ok. Ok. More seriously. Um, we had a lot to learn I pitching is I mean, I've done academic talks for such a long time, you know, I've been in the media talking as part of what I do, you know, I'm also a singer. So like, I live on stage, but it's, this is very, very specific, you want to effectively communicate, and that's really important. Your business, not your product. Okay. That was a big learning curve for me. Okay. So your product, wasn't it? So your business, right? It's about the team. It's about, are you going to make money, it's about your competitive landscape. Yeah, and I'm the founder. And, you know, I know this is unique, there is nothing like it. It's amazing. It's the best thing since sliced bread, in fact, quite a bit better.
But other people don't know that. And you have to be patient and careful and explain to them why your business is the most amazing thing in a way that they can understand. So are you adjusting this pitch based on the investor, you're talking to them a little bit about a lot of it as come off from feedback. Tell me about the feedback. So at first,
at first, it was difficult and personalize your professor. Now someone's telling the professor, they could be wrong or change
as Professor to get used to accepting criticism. In fact, the professors are one of the few people who readily say, okay, you're right, if you give them a good argument on, okay. But what I wasn't used to it was more the culture of it, like how it's supposed to go, there's a lot to the culture of startups a lot to how you're supposed to behave when you talk to investors, just so that it fits what they're expecting,
Shawn Flynn 25:57
will say one or two things of how various Yeah, because we're running a little bit at a time, what information do you wish someone had given you at the beginning of your journey that you know, now, but you wish you had known at the beginning? Um,
yeah, there's a lot,
Maya Acherman 26:14
going to even start. So we're pivoting for example. Okay. So that was something you know, I mean, I suppose everybody would have liked to know, their final pivot all the way in the beginning. But that came out of a long list of meetings with investors were finally we had an outstanding meeting where we felt like somebody somebody was able to explain to us why our market was too small. Finally, they could explain it. Well, we were going to make plugins and somebody explained to us at the most successful plugin of all time was very far from a billion dollar company. And we felt from the beginning that this product is going to work for everybody. And so we made a massive pivots remade our whole product from scratch. Wow, and created something so that anybody can write a song and five minutes so you don't have to, you have to have like, really Xerox parties. Maya, can you tell everyone how they can reach you and your beta test one more time? Absolutely. So you can reach me at Well, actually, all the information is on our website at with elisa.com li si K. That's the spelling of Alicia, the with elisa.com. You can sign up for the beta, my contact information is there happy to hear from you. Oh,
Shawn Flynn 27:19
so Maya, I really want to thank you for coming on Silicon Valley successes. And for anyone at home that wants more information on the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem. get in contact with any of our guests right, then please visit our website Silicon Valley successes. com. Our next interview is fascinating. We have two people that we're going to talk about startups, leases, office space do's and don'ts and things to be careful of. So it's very important meeting and I look to see you there. All right. Take care.
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