An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Ian Gauger of Circle Optics, which was honored in our:
- 2022 Best Tech Startups in Rochester (New York)
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Rochester (New York)
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Rochester (New York)
Tell us the origin story of Circle Optics – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
The origin of Circle came from this question: If Google has 360-cameras on top of cars all around the world, why can’t a person put on a VR headset and feel like they are going on a car ride down the Italian Rivera, or anywhere else in the world? The reason this did not exist was due to a fundamental flaw in 360-degree cameras whereby individual camera channels saw the world from differing, overlapping perspectives. This flaw produces a distortion known as “parallax”, which requires intensive post-processing known as “stitching” to combine the fields of view and remove artifacts of the parallax distortion. The understanding was that because circular optics produce a circular field-of-view projected onto rectilinear imaging sensors, that there was no way to combine these fields-of-view without significant overlap and parallax. At Circle, we went back to first principals and asked why do the optics and their fields-of-view have to be circular? The answer is that they don’t! By using polygonal lenses with polygonal fields-of-view that align along their edges, its possible to capture a spherical view of the world without overlapping fields-of-view and parallax distortion, thereby producing a flawless 360-image or video in real-time.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
I think the toughest times came as we started adding staff. Suddenly we had employees who were expecting a salary and benefits and we had to provide that for them. It is one thing for Zak (CEO) and I not to pay ourselves when things get tight, but our employees are counting on a paycheck and we have to deliver. It’s a lot of responsibility. There were times when we knew we had cash coming in but that it wouldn’t be here in time for payroll, so we had to dip into our own pockets to make up the difference. Fortunately, as we’ve grown and started to receive more regular revenue, we have been able project potential cashflow issues in advance and adjust appropriately.
What does the future hold for Circle Optics?
Well, for the past year and a half we have been primarily focused on the defense and aerospace markets, where we have completed a number of SBIR/STTR contracts. However, as our technology has matured, we have started to turn our focus to down market pursuits such as developing commercial systems for use on drone platforms. Being one of the winners of the GENIUS NY program helped validate the desire for our technology in the drone market and provided us with the connections we needed to grow that part of our business.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Rochester?
I think the tech startup scenes in both Rochester and Syracuse (where we recently opened our first satellite office) are great. New York is really going above and beyond to support the developing startup ecosystem upstate. This is evidenced by the GENIUS NY and Luminate programs, as well as groups like FuzeHub and Launch NY, all of which we worked with and benefited from. Furthermore, I think startup founders are starting to realize that in an increasingly connected world, you don’t have to be located in tech hub like San Francisco or Boston to succeed. We were able to find amazing technical resources and settle in Rochester, all while maintaining connections with advisors and investors across the country. The whole world is only a Zoom call away!
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
There are many characteristics that can lead someone to becoming an entrepreneur (ability to envision things which don’t exist yet, superior technical capabilities, persistence, and a strong work ethic, to name a few). However, to be successful in the startup world, it is very important to focus! This can be difficult when there are so many opportunities out there. As you begin to take off, many will approach you with services they offer, partnership ideas, and other “can’t miss” opportunities. I get at least a dozen emails to this effect a week, but its important to be discerning when it comes to this. An entrepreneur must learn to filter the true opportunities from the noise. There are only so many hours in a day and they should be spent on the things which provide the most value to the company and move you closer to your end goal, whatever that may be.