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Introducing FLEXOUND — interview with Mervi Heinaro, CEO of the augmented audio startup

FLEXOUND is the developer of FLEXOUND Augmented Audio™ — the only audio system that offers one sound source that combines both the sound and vibration of all frequencies and provides an augmented audio experience. This means that you can feel the sound on your skin and body while getting substantial sustainability benefits.

The Espoo-based startup focuses on entertainment (cinema) and mobility (automotive and aerospace) industries.

What does FLEXOUND offer to its customers?

FLEXOUND™ is a deep-tech startup that can add the sensation of touch to any sound content. With the patented FLEXOUND Augmented Audio™ technology, you can both hear high-quality audio, feel it physically, and get sustainability benefits.

The startup's B2B customers can use the patented technology in car, plane or cinema seats, furniture, gaming chairs, and cushions. 

Why does FLEXOUND exist?

FLEXOUND wants to change how people experience sound. For the last 100 years, we've been listening to sound with our ears only. Sound waves, however, are physical vibrations that move all around us. We can physically feel them and be touched by them.

We also want to replace traditional sound systems. FLEXOUND Augmented Audio™ is the only audio system in the world that offers both the sound and vibration of all frequencies from one source and provides an augmented audio experience. 

"You need to be ready to change your original business idea if it doesn't work for you."

What problem does your augmented audio technology solve?

Our innovation is unique because it combines entertainment and healing qualities. We can bring relaxation and pain relief to any sound content: music, movies, games, anything. 

Depending on the industry, FLEXOUND Augmented Audio™ brings different benefits. For the entertainment industry, FLEXOUND provides an immersive experience of sound — putting you in the movie — with lesser volume and better sound quality. For the automotive industry, the technology is weight, cost, space and energy-efficient and increases safety.

Our multi-sensory technology is also modular. It's a hardware-enabled solution which means that we offer the technology and, when needed, the core components. Our patented module can be included in any soft object in contact with any part of the human body, such as pillows — like our HUMU  Augmented Audio Cushion — mattresses, chairs and seats.

We have 20 patents and 100 IPR filings.

"Our greatest achievement has been to create a product for autistic children."

So, how does FLEXOUND's augmented audio experience enhance the enjoyment of playing a video game or going to the cinema, for example?

When you have two senses, hearing and touch, that sense the sound, the sound clarity increases. In practice, this means that you can lower the volume and still get a better sound quality. It's a highly immersive experience.

FLEXOUND is also near field listening. It decreases sound pollution significantly. Therefore, with our solution, you won't bother the people around you. 

Three beige movie theatre seats.
Movie goers get to experience an immersive experience of sound — putting them in the movie. Image: FLEXOUND.

Is sustainability connected to your business? 

Sustainability is definitely a strategic focus in our business. FLEXOUND Augmented Audio™ is an effective way to produce sound. 

First of all, it's energy-efficient when compared to traditional loudspeakers. With very little power, we can produce a high-quality sound. For example, a conventional car subwoofer that produces the low-frequency bass may use thousands of watts in peak power.

In comparison, we have one element that produces all the sound frequencies and uses about 10 watts in peak power. This is one-tenth of the power needed in regular audio speakers. Also, since we use only one element per seat, you save raw materials, space and weight.

Accessibility is another form of sustainability that FLEXOUND audio solution increases. Our solution is an inclusive way for people with hearing disabilities to access sound. 

What are your greatest achievements and the most difficult times?

First of all, our greatest achievement has been to create a product for autistic children — and to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. And secondly, to bring something completely new quickly into a highly competitive industry — and surprise some of the bigger companies in the audio industry.

In 2015 we brought a functioning product into the therapy market and got our first international clients. Then we realised that this is a wonderful product for the consumer market. We did this in 2017. For a five-people strong company to mass-produce a product for the consumer market is a big achievement. 

Soon we realised, though, that, okay, we're not a consumer product company. It was difficult for us to build a commercial brand for a product that requires the consumer to use, feel and experience the product physically — i.e., build something that doesn't work in an online shop. But the fact that we were able to do that showed how ready we are. 

We learned that you need to be ready to change your original business idea if it doesn't work for you. As a startup, you need to have a clear focus but also be agile. And be prepared to also say no to projects that do not advance your business.

In 2018, we decided to focus on the B-to-B segments — automotive, aerospace, and cinema. We had zero Euro turnover from the mobility and cinema segments, but by 2019, 77% of our turnover came from them.

"We met Nordic Ninja at Enter Espoo's matchmaking event. Subsequently, Nordic Ninja invested in FLEXOUND."

In summer 2019, after 18 months of product development, we launched our FLEXOUND Augmented Audio™ system for cinema. Exactly in nine months, we had our first commercial client. And in a year, we got four new international cinema clients. The pace of the development of FLEXOUND's business has been astonishing.

Why should an international company or investor come to Espoo's innovation ecosystem?

Like Finland as a country, Espoo is a well-functioning city where things get done. There is little bureaucracy, and new business and ideas are born all the time. 

From the perspective of our expertise, Espoo is very strong in sustainability — whether it's to do with an ageing society, changing automotive industry, connected mobility, or clean energy and recycling. There are great potential and opportunities in Espoo in anything that questions the way things have been and are done.

Has your cooperation with Enter Espoo helped you?

We met NordicNinja VC at Enter Espoo's matchmaking event. Subsequently, NordicNinja invested in FLEXOUND.

Hero image: FLEXOUND

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