Tech start-up of the week: Xcelerit
Prof Richard Kenway, chairman of the PRACE scientific steering committee, presents the award for most innovative HPC application in Europe to Hicham Lahlou, CEO of Xcelerit, in Bologna, Italy, on 17 April last
Our tech start-up to watch this week is Xcelerit, a new software spin-out from the Science Foundation Ireland-funded CTVR telecommunications research centre at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).
The start-up, which was co-founded by Hicham Lahlou, has been keeping quiet up to now. However, earlier this week, Xcelerit got a major boost when it won a top European award for most innovative high-performance computing (HPC) application in Europe.
PRACE, which stands for Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe, presented the award to Hicham Lahlou at its innovation competition in Bologna, Italy.
So, what's Xcelerit all about then and how did the company manage to spin out from TCD research back in 2010?
Lahlou says that the team at CTVR had been working on projects that focused on the design of innovative wireless communications systems.
"In many of these projects, we needed to push large amounts of data through complex algorithms in the quickest possible time. Conventional single-core chips were not delivering the performance we needed, so we began to investigate a variety of multi-core and specialised hardware, including GPUs, FPGAs, DSPs."
He says that such hardware deliver the processing power at the right price, but are very difficult to program.
"We realised there was a significant market opportunity for a simplified and unified method to leverage the processing power of these platforms for domain specialists in many compute-intensive application areas."
Lahlou himself has quite an eclectic background. Born in Morocco, he was educated there and at INSA in Lyon in France.
"After I got some experience in software development in the space sector in French Guiana, I was searching for an opening that would allow me to engage in cutting-edge technology and that would offer up entrepreneurial opportunities. That is what brought me to Ireland to work at the CTVR telecommunications centre."
He says the environment there meant he had access to all the latest technology.
"We built Xcelerit as a campus spin-out with help from the TCD research and innovation office."
So, how many are involved in the start-up team at the minute? "We established with just a handful of people back in 2010," explains Lahlou.
"Since then, we have been growing, adding people on the sales, software development and business development areas. We are currently recruiting people on the support and sales side in both Ireland and the UK," he adds.
He says that the team came up with the name Xcelerit as they wanted to get across the simple idea that they take existing software and make it run much faster - or 'accelerate it', if you will.
According to Lahlou, Xcelerit is aiming to make it very easy to leverage the huge compute power of multi-core and GPU hardware.
"From a simple generic source code, users can generate highly efficient programs for a variety of target processors."
Financial services focus
Right now, Xcelerit is honing in on the financial services area.
"We believe that there is a huge potential for growth in financial services," he says. Since the start of the financial crisis, he says there has been a huge focus on the calculation of risk in complex scenarios.
"Increased regulation means that investment banks are being required to do ever more complex calculations to ensure that they are not over-exposed.
According to Lahlou, the start-up's product allows investment banks to easily modify their existing code to achieve 5x, 10x and 100x speedups.
"Our technology has also a great potential in other verticals such as energy and data analytics."
Self-funded, organic growth
But has Xcelerit got any seed funding to date? "We were lucky in getting some early customers that allowed us to get off the ground and we have been able to grow from there. So far, we are self-funded and growing organically," explains Lahlou.
And the plan for the rest of 2012? He says that the company's core product, Xcelerit SDK, is now being used in major companies and research organisations in many different parts of the world.
"We have fine-tuned the core product and just recently released a companion product Xcelerit Quant. We plan to strongly push this in our major markets in the UK, US and Asia-Pacific. We'll be doing this through a combination of direct-selling and through intermediaries," he says.
And, as with any start-up, there have been a few challenges along the way.
"In the early days it is always hectic with a small team trying to cope with sales, technical, support etc, but that has settled down a little now. Now the focus is on continuing to build the customer base and deliver on our promises," says Lahlou.
And finally, his advice for other start-ups in Ireland right now is to first develop a vision of where you want your company to be in five years, 10 years and build towards that step by step.
"For example, the way we manage our software development process was designed from the beginning to scale to a large team size. Even when we only had a handful of customers, we used professional support and CRM tools to manage that professionally. All of this pays dividends as the growth comes," adds Lahlou.