Alumnus of the year 2006

Michael Hollier

In 2006 Michael Hollier was recognised for his contribution to telecommunications, primarily for leading and developing Psytechnics, a BT spin-off company.

Through Michael's pioneering work in perceptual engineering, Psytechnics developed its unique ability to diagnose problems with call quality. Before founding Psytechnics he occupied a number of important positions at BT and throughout the 1990s directed research into audio, video and multi-media performance.

Michael is a Chartered Engineer and twice winner of the Alan Rudge Award for Innovation.

Oration

Oration given on 21 July 2006 by Professor Malcolm Hawksford, Department of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering

Chancellor, the University of Essex Foundation has determined that Dr Michael Hollier shall be the recipient of the Alumnus of the Year Award for 2006.

As an academic, one of the greatest pleasures to be experienced is the opportunity to celebrate the outstanding achievement of a graduate of the University. This year we recognise the achievements of Dr Michael Hollier, who has been selected Alumnus of the Year 2006.

Michael gained his doctorate from Essex in June 1995, having undertaken five years of part-time study in the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering where he studied objective techniques for the subjective evaluation of speech quality. He is, first and foremost, an engineer.

I well recall my initial acquaintance with Michael where I learnt, with enthusiasm, his keen interest in audio engineering, a subject dear to my heart. While reading for his first degree in mechanical engineering at Plymouth Polytechnic, Michael was employed at Haybrook Hi-Fi Limited as a research and development engineer working on novel loud speaker enclosure design, including particle loaded co-resin baffles and multi-port reflex systems for small enclosures, both of which have now become main stream within the hi-fi industry. In many ways, this was a fortuitous experience as it established, for him, a foundation in electo-acoustics and audio signal processing, both of which were to impact upon the second phase of his career.

In 1987, Michael’s next career move was to join British Telecoms Lab at Martlesham Heath, where he held a number of positions that culminated in him directing BT’s research into audio, video, multimedia performance assessment. During this period, a world-leading team was established, who researched the instrumental measurement of end-user perception, that embraced techniques such as subjective testing methodologies, novel signal processing and approaches, and advanced modelling methodologies. A critical measure of research acumen is to be able to work successfully within an interdisciplinary environment. A foundation in audio systems had already been established and, during Michael’s PhD study, the critical fields of psycho-acoustic were explored and this provided the gateway between human perception and electronic signal processing. The main focus of this research was to employ sophisticated models of human hearing in order to predict speech quality to obtain automatically performance metrics of telecommunication networks. In essence, this work was about using objective methods in the form of embedded software code, to assess subjective performance in real-time speech traffic. Prior to this work, such testing would have required human intervention in the form of subjective assessment trials which are time-consuming, susceptible to error, and totally inappropriate for assessing speech quality in real-time. Of course, it remains a philosophical conjecture as to whether the results of his labour have lead to an overall improvement in sound quality (which was my own altruistic motivation) or instead, has provided the telecommunications companies with the opportunity to manipulate their transmission parameters to meet just the minimum standards and thus maximise their profits! I am sure improved sound quality has prevailed.

As well as speech performance metrics, another more remarkable performance metric is the high-quality of research produced both in Michael’s early research and also subsequently in the application and commercialisation phases. In year 2000, Michael’s team established a ITUT world standard for speech quality. This standard has now been sold to more than 3,000 n-users, including virtually ever major telecommunication company on planet earth. A remarkable achievement! It will be interesting to see how this extends in the future, when inter-planetary communication systems are established. I am very optimistic.

Nineteen patents have been awarded, 41 published papers attracting a number of prizes, the Alan Rudge Award for Innovation both in October ’96 and October 2001, the Alan Roge Medal for Innovation October 1998, and the British Computer Science Society Medal 1999. Over this time period, the University is indebted to Michael because significant aspects of his work were aligned closely to those of the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering. And it is a personal delight that, while he was at BT, several of his research team studied audio engineering at Essex.

However, as well as having highly competent engineering and research skills, Michael has also a revered sophisticated entrepreneurial ability. In April 2000, an incubation company of British Telecom was spun out under the name of Psytechnics Limited, where Michael undertook initial market analysis and business planning. In December 2000, he formally left BT to become CEO of Psytechnics. Michael has led the company through its formative period, making key appointments and ensuring all activities of the business are market lead. This is not an easy venture, as it coincided with the economic downturn that had such devastating effect on many technological companies, following the cycle of dot com boom and bust. Nevertheless, sheer determination and focus attracted further investment, which lead to second year revenues of £1million by licensing deals. The successful re-planning and robust adaptation to real-world economics were recognised when, in October 2002, Psytechnics won the inaugural national business award for corporate venturing. However, since 2002, Michael has switched roles to become CTO, acting as their technology evangelist to oversee research and development of a new generation of products. The company currently employs 35 staff and has offices in Europe and the USA, with recent licensees that include household names such as Intel, IBM and Microsoft.

The University congratulates Michael on his successes and achievements to date, although of course expects even greater achievements in the future. We are confident that he will continue to develop his business in what is a critical and expanding marketplace. His career is a wonderful illustration of how multidisciplinary engineering skills, nurtured through university research, can lead to world class business success. I sincerely hope that Michael’s achievement will act as a catalyst and that his successes will offer strong motivation to all our new graduates. Remember, that nothing is prescribed and all is possible, where there is a will and determination to succeed.

In conclusion, I thought, I would venture into the world of offering a small demonstration, to try to illustrate what we mean by subjective sound quality in the context of a telecommunications system. I’ve prepared a short demonstration, it lasts just over one minute. At the commencement of the demonstration, the sound clogs will be reasonable but then it will gradually decay as the bit rate of the system is reduced, matching what happens when there is signal impairment in a communications system. I have to warn you that Michael has already warned me that the recording should have been the other way round, with the sound quality improving as time went along. However, I have to say, in this world of highly compressed digital audio, I’m not quite so sure about that! Can we play the demonstration please?

Chancellor, I present to you Michael Hollier

Response

Response by Dr Michael Hollier

I am very honoured to be here today to receive this award which has come as a very unexpected and delightful surprise. Reflecting on what I might say to you when I addressed you today has given me an opportunity to replay many of the highlights of the several years since I graduated with my PhD from Essex in '95. And frankly it's been quite an amazing journey. Firstly leading BT's research into a radical new area of performance measurement technology through the extravagance of the technology boom in the 1990s, that was a great sandpit to play in. Then, in 2000, I lead the formation of a new, high-tech, start-up company, Psytechnics, just as the technology bubble reached its peak and then, of course, that was followed by heading, head first, into the technology market crash, and I think its that bit that they call the character building experience, as was raising two rounds of venture capital funding during the downturn, and I think that it was that gruesome feat that attracted the National Business Award in 2002. And now, more recently of course, we have the exciting improvement in the technology market, business picking up worldwide, opening offices in the US and soon, I think, Japan. So what messages might I offer you? Well, I think I can summarise in four points.

Firstly, it's about the people. It was Professor Malcolm Hawksford's reputation that first attracted me to the University of Essex, and he certainly bought creativity and inspiration to my postgraduate studies and has given years of support beyond. Professor Rob Massara has also become a valued mentor and has contributed to the development of my technical teams, both in BT and in Psytechnics. Beyond the University, I've built world-class development and business teams and it is the expertise and labours of those people who've actually delivered commercialisation, productisation of the new technology and generated commercial success.

Secondly, you can never actually stop learning; this is just the beginning. There's a great deal to learn in academia but also from a mixture of large and small companies, and for me this has culminated with Psytechnics, which has bought me into the worlds of corporate governance, venture finance and profit and loss responsibility, and also taken me around the world, doing business in the radically different cultures of Europe, North America and Asia.

Thirdly, it is somewhat about being in the right place at the right time. However, be ambitious, seize your chances, take calculated risks while valuing the people around you and when you have successes, be big enough to admit that it's partly through good planning and partly through good luck.

Finally, you can change the world a little bit. Consider that from such humble beginnings as my PhD project, we've developed a new technology that is set to touch your world through licensing deals and to household names like IBM, Intel and Microsoft. Today, you graduate into a resilient global economy and a rapidly recovering technology sector, which is rich with growth potential and mergers and acquisition activity. I suspect your timing is very good and I wish you good luck.

Thank you very much.