“We have no clue how to do it, let’s find out”

Interview with Roberto Iannone, Founder of Zoundream

Roberto Iannone was a young father trying to understand his baby daughter’s needs when he came up with an idea: Let technology help parents to decipher the crying sounds of babies. Roberto quit his corporate job to found Zoundream. More than two years later, the company’s baby translator is close to market readiness, and the has startup raised investments to drive the development.

Basel Area Business & Innovation: How is your daughter?

Roberto Iannone: Sophia is very well. She is nearly three years old.

Can she tell you what she needs today?

Oh, yes. Unfortunately, the baby translator didn’t work for my daughter. When we had the first prototype, she was already one year old. Maybe for the next child…

Why did it freak you out that you didn’t always know what your daughter needed?

The first months were tough for my wife and me. It was difficult to understand what our daughter needed. Even more important was that we were not confident. Most of the time in the beginning we were wondering: Is she eating enough? Is she sleeping enough? Are we doing the right things? Is our daughter doing normal baby stuff? We went to the pediatrician every couple of weeks because we were freaking out, and every time the midwife came to see us we had a list of questions written down. The most valuable thing she told us was: Everything is normal, that is how babies work. During that time, I got the idea of using technology to help parents with something that you normally only learn over time. When my daughter was about five or six months old, my wife asked me to read a book about childcare. The book was explaining cry translation. That is how I got the idea for the baby translator.

How did you approach the development of your idea?

I’m a business person, but I can’t build the technology. The first thing I did was to call for people who could. A dear friend of mine is a programmer from Barcelona. Paolo Ingraito, who has worked with digital sounds for 20 years. The second person was Stavros Ntalampiras, a professor from Milan, who had done research in audio pattern recognition and machine learning.

What is the current status of your technology?

We use sound recognition that is applied to crying sounds and machine learning. We can say whether the baby is hungry, tired, uncomfortable, if it needs to burp or has stomach pain. The baby translator is working. We have been testing it with families for two years now, and it gets better with every version. We are fine-tuning it and are close to being market-ready.

How do parents get one of your devices to test?

We have a link on our webpage where parents can apply. Ideally, you start using the baby translator when your baby is a newborn. Currently, we have around 50 families using the device. Some use it for six months, some longer. Others stop because they say it’s not for them.

What kind of feedback have you had?

Some people have rightly complained because we had a problem with the battery. But if everything is fine from a technology point of view and there are no bugs, usually parents are happy. They find value in the baby translator and use it. When you receive the device, you switch it on and it works and tells you if your baby is hungry or sleepy, if it needs to burp or if it’s uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable is a wide field.

“Uncomfortable” generally means that the baby doesn’t like the current situation. The baby might say: I want to be picked up, I want to feel the mother, it’s too hot, it’s too warm. “Uncomfortable” is a category that we are fixing now. It’s a bit generic and parents are struggling with that.

How are you helping parents with what to do?

We have developed an app in recent weeks. We want to show parents what “uncomfortable” could mean and which three or four things they should try. When a baby is hungry, you know what you need to do. But to help a baby to burp is something you might not know from the outset.

Your experience as a father gave you the idea. How did your experience as a strategist with Deloitte and as customer operations lead for Syngenta help you to build Zoundream?

I’ve always been working with other people and leading teams. As controversial as it may sound, in all my roles I was never the person who understood the topic better than anyone else in the room. It’s the same today. I had the idea, then I looked for people who could implement it. The main effort is to make sure that the people work best. It’s my role to facilitate that process. There is one main difference though: now I don’t have to report to anyone, which is probably the part that I like the most.

How important is it, do you think, to be a pro in presenting your idea as a startup founder?

It’s very important. I don’t know if it’s the same for all startups, but my main job is to sell a story. I have to sell the story of the company, the people and the technology. My job is a lot about presentation, about being comfortable in doing that and being able to create something that people remember.

Does it come naturally to you?

Now it does. But I have to admit that I used to hate public speaking. At some point it became part of what I do. So I thought: whatever, let’s just do it. Now I actually like it.

What else did you learn?

I learn something new every day because I have to. At Syngenta, we were 30,000 people. At Deloitte 100,000. Now we’re seven. We have to cover many of the things that a big corporate organization covers. Often, you don’t know how and you have no one to ask, so you learn. You have to learn finance, accounting, how to manage a team, legal matters, intellectual property. The technology team had to learn how to develop an app in just a few months, and they did. That’s what I like about working in a startup. Others don’t like it. All of the team are doing something that has never been done before. They need to believe in the idea. They need to be like: hey, here’s a challenge, we have no clue how to do it, so let’s find out. That’s the attitude of a startup. We just have to make it up as best as we can.

What about the pay? Is there a balance?

No. You don’t do it for money. We haven’t had a salary for the last two years.

How did that work?

We used our savings, and some had part-time jobs. We got some grants. Recently, we closed our first seed round. Some private investors from Switzerland and two early-stage venture capital firms are investing in us. Now we’ve started to pay ourselves a salary.

It must be great to have that backing now.

It is. When you have a daughter like I do, it’s not all about you. Due to Covid-19, our seed round kept being delayed. I could often not get to sleep. I was looking at my daughter sleeping beside me in her bed, which is too small for her because we cannot move to another apartment. Because I couldn’t afford it. In these moments, I felt bad. Then you work even harder because you want to sort that out. It’s going well, but there were a couple of times when I wondered if this is the right thing for my family.

What role did accelerators, mentoring programs and the like play for the development of your company?

We participated in two accelerators, one in Barcelona, one in Basel. They were very helpful. You become part of the ecosystem and find other people to talk to. You receive advice and mentorship. In particular, the DayOne Accelerator here in Basel… I don’t know how many programs there are are like that. They have a lot on offer in terms of coaching and non-dilutive funding. Although the program is over, I’m still in contact with the people. If I have a question, I call them and they’re happy to help or to connect me with someone who can help. I am looking for other similar programs but they’re not easy to find.

What steps have you planned now?

We’re starting development to use our technology to support the pre-diagnosis of pathologies and developmental disorders. With this, we can analyze cries to identify the potential risk for developing disorders or pathologies. We are also currently busy working on licensing contracts for the cry translation. Licensing allows us to bring the baby translator to the market and to earn revenue. Initially, our idea was to sell devices. We realized that a licensing business model works better for us. If we went to the market ourselves, sold our own device and built our own brand, that would be tough. It requires a lot of money and it’s slow. Instead, what we can do best is to develop software. We offer this to companies, which are best at doing all the rest. It’s a win-win. The target is to have a baby translator in all baby monitors.

What can you tell us about the licensing?

We are working with baby monitor companies to bring our technology to the market. We are already working with some potential licensing partners. The goal is to bring our technology into their line-up starting next year. We are also pursuing insurance companies as our go-to-market-strategy. We have been working with Assicurazioni Generali for the last year. The idea we’re working on together is to offer the technology to families who have an insurance policy with them. We are doing a pilot with Generali in three countries.

What is your biggest achievement with Zoundream so far?

We started with a crazy idea and now it’s something concrete. It exists. People use it and many people believe in the idea. We’ve had people working on it for two years, investors putting money into the idea, and pediatricians who believe the baby translator is a useful thing and who want to be a part of that. That’s the biggest achievement.

If you were to give one piece of advice to new founders, what would that be?

Don’t underestimate what you’re getting into. You will soon find out it is much more difficult than you expected – no matter what you thought in the beginning. I knew on the one hand what I was getting into. But it’s one thing to think about it. And quite another to do it. The amount of time you need never equals the time you imagine you’d need in the beginning. Even if it works – and until now it has worked for Zoundream – it is much more difficult than you thought it would be.

Two and a half years have passed since you started. Would you do it again?

Yes. There is one problem when founding a startup: once you get into that logic, it’s tough to get back into corporate life. I’m not sure I could still report to someone. If this fails, what do I do then? Do I get a corporate job? Or do I start again?

About

Roberto Iannone is the co-founder and CEO of Zoundream. Prior to that, he was Customer Operations Lead at Syngenta. He worked as Manager Strategy & Operations with Deloitte. Roberto acquired a Global Executive MBA from INSEAD and holds a Master of Science in Management Engineering.