Dr. Audrey Stone, CEO at Blueshift Memory
In this edition of the WLI Entrepreneurial Blog, we had the pleasure of talking to Dr. Audrey Stone, CEO of Blueshift Memory, a Cambridge UK-based start-up with a new memory chip design that helps close the performance gap between processors and memory devices. By optimizing the memory architecture for more efficient handling of large data sets and time-critical data, it can enable up to 1,000 times faster memory access and zero latency, and also reduces power consumption.
I know you’ll be incredibly inspired after reading this interview and learning about her semiconductor industry journey from intellectual property (IP) attorney to CEO.
Q: Tell us about your background and why you joined the industry.
My career has been quite a varied one, but it has provided many insights that support my current role. I’ve experienced the whole IP segment – everything from handling patent portfolios to international licensing (one of my specialties), franchises, content and technology and how they are related, and how you need to work with data, especially big data. From an early stage, I was drawn to innovation, and even in law school I realized that what truly ignites my passion is technology and creativity. The idea of seeing how a mere idea can evolve, mature and come to fruition is truly exciting. Semiconductors are the epitome of this – especially the overall connectedness, as they impact all the end-use technologies that are most exciting at the moment, such as AI and media content delivery.
I have lived in various different places during my life, including New York, the Netherlands and Spain, as well as my native Hungary, before moving to England. Wherever I traveled, I enjoyed engaging with local culture and learning new languages. I have found that by absorbing different cultures – listening and learning from the ideas of others as well as talking – I have been able to expand my horizons, and I have learned how to see things from a different perspective. This has proved to be an asset for me when I’ve had to negotiate business in different places, often times in different languages.
In 16 years as an IP lawyer I have seen many different angles of business. A big challenge that remains relevant to my career is how to determine the true value of IP, since it is so subjective and is affected both by the market positioning and the level of demand for a particular innovation – this intangibility makes it both challenging and exciting! I liken it to trying to play a game of chess blindfold, as you need to be aware of all the moves, but you don’t see the outcome until right at the end of the game.
My legal background means that guiding and advising on all kinds of negotiations and deals – IP, mergers and acquisitions, valuations, corporate transactions, buyouts – is an area where I can particularly add value and help create the best long-term benefits for the business.
Q: Tell us about your vision for Blueshift Memory and what led you to join the company.
The company’s technology is groundbreaking, and as an IP company the handling of the patent portfolio needs to be at the core of the business, to make sure the rights to its design are properly protected. The founder, Peter Marosan, is also the primary inventor of the Blueshift Memory technology, and at the time I was recruited as CEO in October 2019 he was particularly keen to balance the management team with a female leader, as well as adding the necessary expertise in business and IP. Since then, we have grown the management team and Advisor Board in order to achieve a solid technical and business foundation on which we can grow the business and push it to the next level. With Covid-19 it has been rather a challenging time as well as an exciting one, but one of our strengths is that the team is international and is well-adapted to working remotely.
Audrey enjoying some relaxation time.
From the outset I had a real sense that Blueshift Memory’s technology in the memory field could be disruptive. It has the potential to enable a quantum leap in both the speed and energy efficiency of memory architecture and storage applications. At the point when I joined, the technology was ready for commercialization, and I was happy to accept the challenge to move it forward.
Data processing, and particularly its speed and efficiency, underpins many of the digital transformation trends that are currently happening in business. The excitement and challenge of being part of that change, and bringing the technology to market, is something that I thrive on. I believe that the Blueshift Memory product has the capability to fundamentally change the way things work in both the IT and semiconductor industries. Although high-level code inherently understands data structures, it loses that understanding when compiled into assembler. The addresses and indexes the CPU calculates in hardware are therefore random, and each memory access is in isolation from others – both of these make the process power hungry and inefficient. As data sets continue to grow bigger, caches become less effective, and memory access is becoming the dominant consumer of energy, which will ultimately be unsustainable. Our technology provides the answer to this by making use of the prior knowledge of the data structure from hardware to make memory access dramatically more efficient.
Q: What are the most exciting and interesting aspects of your job?
Blueshift Memory addresses the problem that data scientists across the world are looking for the answer to – we need data as quickly as possible, in real time and on a large scale. Fundamentally, memory architecture has not changed since the 1960s, and it’s ill-equipped to cope with future demands. Our technology has a radical new and energy-efficient approach, and I believe it’s a winning solution! I feel genuinely inspired to be leading Blueshift Memory on this exciting journey.
Q: What were/are the challenges of being a female entrepreneur?
Although the semiconductor industry is particularly male-dominated, I’ve seen many of the same challenges in other industries I’ve worked in. As a woman you have to deal with certain stereotypes, like not being expected to understand deep technical or engineering concepts. I’ve found that I need to stay confident in my own abilities and avoid any feeling of “imposter syndrome”. A team needs a blend of different qualities, and I remind myself that the knowledge and experience I bring to it can be just as valuable as knowing how to work on the technical side. I’m pleased now to have Helen Duncan as a member of our team, as she combines an engineering background with marketing and communications skills, and she has been a long-term campaigner for women in engineering and STEM.
It has been enlightening to see the difference in approach to women’s rights in the various countries I’ve worked in. When I lived in the Netherlands, I worked for a Danish company, and I was very impressed by the progress both those countries have made to empower women over many decades – from the 1970s onwards, not just in the 2000s. Women need role models and mentors, so I very much see things beginning to improve as more of us succeed as entrepreneurs and thus inspire others to do the same. The GSA and the WLI in particular are setting a great example in this work.
I think that fortunately the millennial generation is more aware of the opportunities that are open to women, and I’m glad that there is now more dialog about it and that there are the resources to measure gender inequality. We have to move toward more diversity – more women, more people of color, and more under-represented people – as this enriches the business world and makes it more relevant to the whole of society. We need to be more open and inclusive, and to realize that not everyone is the same as ourselves.
Q: What advice do you have for young women who would like to become entrepreneurs?
My advice for young women: be a REBEL! Do not believe that you are expected to be silent, or to take a less assertive role in business, and don’t allow yourself to be labelled or stereotyped. Another message I have for young women is that success is not easy whatever your gender, and you will be admired if you can persevere through difficult situations. I hope that there will be lots of revolutionary women out there who will be rebels and pioneers, whether or not they have an example to follow. All businesses need a range of different skill sets and qualities to put together a successful team. I am pleased to say that Blueshift Memory is a keen promoter of diversity, and had no hesitation in appointing a female CEO, so I hope to see many more companies following this example.
Audrey at her graduation
Q: What do you think we can do to make the semiconductor industry more attractive and retain women?
I think giving recognition to women is very important. Giving women a platform and being part of an initiative like the Women’s Leadership Initiative is wonderful. It’s very good to feel that you are one of a community, and not trying to make it on your own. Women bring a very different energy to the industry compared with men, and our management style is more inclusive – simply, we can make conversations more fun and we bring a different perspective. I think that kind of diversity in conversations is needed, so providing outlets and spaces for these conversations to happen is important. Also, it’s important not to always seek perfection. Disruptive technology only happens when the status quo is questioned – when something seems not quite right and doesn’t fit into conventional thinking. We need to be brave enough to recognize that a new idea may be the one that can make something magical happen.
Q: How do you imagine the world will change in the next 10-30 years?
I hope Covid will soon be gone, and that travel and normal business meetings will be possible again, but that we will have learned something positive from the experience. I hope we will view change as a good thing, and we learn to embrace it.
There are many technology advances on the way that can potentially enrich our lives and help to avert climate change, and AI and big data are at the heart of all of them, along with 5G and eventually 6G. Telemedicine, autonomous vehicles, Industry 4.0 powered by the IIoT, augmented and virtual reality – the one thing that all of these technology applications have in common are that they need a huge amount of data to be collected, stored, processed and moved around with minimal time delay. Blueshift Memory’s Cambridge Architecture promises to make this happen, and at the same time to reduce energy consumption, so I see our IP being at the heart of all these exciting developments and also helping to drive future advances that we may not even be able to imagine right now.
My legal background makes me risk conscious as well as adventurous, so we need to ensure we build security into the heart of the system if we’re to keep these developments moving in a positive direction. Returning to the chess analogy, you have to be forward thinking, and to stay more than one move ahead of the game. It can be challenging; you’ve got to like chess.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
I would give my younger self the same advice I always try to live by – never give up! The fact that something is difficult demonstrates that it’s worth doing and that your achievement will have significant impact. If it was easy, then everybody would do it. When you are a pioneer, you may not have many examples to follow, but make sure to set an example for those who follow you so that it will be a less lonely place for them. Listen to the different people you meet along the way, making sure to absorb their wisdom and then share it with others. It is always important to speak about and share your experiences, so that they can help others. If you project an authentic version of yourself, you realize that many more people can relate to you. So, I would tell myself to never be silent; dare to say what you think. Believe in yourself!
Audrey with her husband and son
Q: The most important question of all…outside of your laptop and phone, what’s the most important thing you have with you?
I would have to say firstly my family, especially my husband and my son, Alex who is five. Seeing him happy and learning new things is a constant source of joy. Balancing family life with work also keeps me grounded. Secondly, my passport, as some of my family live a long way off and it’s important to me to keep in touch with them. I always enjoy international travel, not only to reunite with distant family members but also to meet new people from different countries and encounter different ideas. I’m anxious to start traveling again post-Covid, so I am keeping my passport close by!
Thank you, Audrey, for taking the time to talk to us and offer great advice to women engineers and entrepreneurs. We enjoyed our lively conversation and are so inspired by your journey in the semiconductor industry from tech lawyer to CEO. To learn more about GSA’s Women’s Leadership Initiative and get involved, please visit https://www.gsaglobal.org/womens-leadership/.
Dr Audrey Stone is the CEO of Blueshift Memory, a Cambridge UK-based fabless semiconductor start-up. The company has a proprietary technology that is designed to close the performance gap between processors and memory devices. Blueshift Memory’s Cambridge Architecture addresses the memory bottleneck in high-performance computing with a new memory chip designed for the efficient handling of large data sets and time-critical data.
Audrey has a proven executive management track record, with over 15 years experience of providing key strategic advice on IP, technology law, data protection and international licensing as a technology lawyer. She has also set up and run a business consultancy, Bliss Business Solutions, focused on IP and data protection. Previously she has acted as in-house counsel for various multinational enterprises and emerging technology companies.