All his life, 60-year-old Paul Reed Smith has loved guitars.
But he hasn’t loved math. At least, he didn’t think he did.
It’s true that the founder of PRS Guitars, located just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Stevensville, had parents who were mathematicians; his father was very involved in radar projects during World War II.
But the younger Smith never thought that gene was in him.
However, it is. All along, he’s been using algebraic equations while designing guitars; he didn’t realize it, however, until his late father pointed it out one day about 13 years ago when they were fishing.
It’s a long story, but that’s when Smith realized that the equations he was using at PRS could be used not only at his job, but across the medical, defense, and numerous other industries. And he recently founded Columbia-based Digital Harmonic to market software that is designed to, among many other uses, detect breast cancer in a more effective way.
It’s a big risk, but a risk that a number of investors believe will pay off, especially given Smith’s business acumen and the versatility of the new software.
If they’re right, he’ll be known not only as the man who built a guitar empire by making axes for A-list rock stars like Carlos Santana, Alex Lifeson of Rush, and Journey’s Neal Schon, but as someone who had a hand in saving lives. And potentially much more.
The story began when Smith “hooked a monster of a shark” while fishing with his father on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. That happenstance, for some reason, spurred a physics lesson from the old man.
They ended up in a discussion about algebra, and how the equations he used at work have other applications. Lots of them, too.
“We were in the [U.S.] Patent [and Trademark] Office the next week,” said Smith. “We spent a long time just figuring out what we’d come up with. It was a device that [gleaned] a huge amount of information out of a waveform [from data], like heartbeats. And it was the same thing with images, like a chest X-ray.
“We’d figured out a way to extract data, like your brain does,” he said, from “what you can see and hear,” though adding little more about the patents, which were awarded by the U.S. government on Dec. 31, 2013 for waveform and on Oct. 28, 2014 for imaging.
The first product is just coming to market, after what Smith only termed “significant investment” by PRS Guitars and by private investors, most of whom are from Maryland. Smith said he picked Columbia as the location for Digital Harmonic’s offices due to the pool of skilled high tech workers in the area, the easy access to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, and “because we have classy digs” on Route 108, near Snowden River Parkway.
In opening the new office, Smith is “handing off” the technology and management duties to CTO Shane Morris and CEO Roshni Sherbondy, a veteran of several federal government agencies and three private companies, to develop systems for security applications. Sherbondy has been in touch with patent attorneys and has hired Digital Harmonic’s starting crew, which includes many consultants.
“Her employers have always been hardware-centric,” Smith said, “and maximizing what the data has to offer has always been an issue.”
“I felt very intrigued when I saw this software, because it allows sensor companies to use their data in a much more effective way,” said Sherbondy. “I felt like it would solve issues I’ve experienced,” which have included effectively screening bags at airports and the development of acoustic, radar, electro-optic, and millimeter waves and similar technologies.
Sherbondy said that Digital Harmonic’s technology is in the prototyping phase and “that we plan to create medical products and defense products, too (exactly how the processing works more effectively than existing capabilities is protected by the patents).”
She added, however, that “the results from our processing offer a more accurate representation of images and waveforms in time, frequency and amplitude, thus allowing for more clarity in images, [creating] more information that can result in the easier detection of cancers and heart issues, as well as military threats, etc.
“The breadth of applications for this technology is vast, and I feel it has unlimited potential,” Sherbondy said. “We are aiming to further develop our software and gain [approvals] while penetrating the medical and government markets.”
That versatility “proposes an interesting way of changing how we look at images,” said Michael Hibler, director of development at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. “If images are made of waveforms, that inherently means that there is noise within those waves.”
But the technology “is not a filter,” he said. “What Paul is proposing is a very clever way of enhancing and reconstructing images based on math algorithms and finding additional data through how the technology processes waveforms.”
And know, Hibler said, that “its potential uses go far beyond the medical field. The analysis tool doesn’t care what it’s measuring, and it provides a great opportunity to think bigger.
“Math is incredibly logical,” he said. “Using it as a tool is an interesting science.”
Do the Math
“There is much basic science in what is happening here,” Hibler said “We have to work hard to translate it into applications. The onus is on Digital Harmonic to do so.”
And, as Smith now better understands, there is a great deal of math involved in building a guitar, as there is in building a software program.
“One of the best things I’ve learned from Paul is that not only is the quality of an instrument crucial, but the same principle applies in science, where we look to make an experiment repeatable,” said Hibler. “You need to do that in manufacturing to assure that each guitar stays in tune and resonates.”
Speaking of resonation, Smith, who has lost a brother to cancer, said that “many departments at Hopkins have been very receptive to our technology” and that it’s time for this new show to open.
“We will start with CT scans and stent operations,” he said, noting that the first product should be fully operational within four months. “We still need FDA approval, and we have $5 million worth of shares left to be sold, but [the company’s outlook is] very promising.”