Ubiquity Founder Profile: Kevin McNamara of Parallel Domain
Learn how Kevin trains ML systems by day and plays drums with the jazz greats by night
In this series, we’re putting the spotlight on founders who leverage software beyond the screen to build exciting startups. Each founder has their own nerdy background (we define nerdiness as having a deep obsession) and their own path to arrive at the founding moment of their startup.
Meet Kevin McNamara, founder and CEO of Parallel Domain, a data generation platform for autonomy. Ubiquity Ventures backed Kevin and Parallel Domain in their 2018 seed round of financing.
What does Parallel Domain do?
Our platform generates synthetic data for the faster and safer development of computer vision and artificial intelligence.
Here’s a snapshot from Parallel Domain’s Batch product where we generate incredibly realistic worlds and imagery inside of a computer. Developers of self-driving cars and other autonomous systems use this synthetic data to train their computer vision and AI systems to improve performance. You’ll see that it includes the complexity of the real world (reflections off car bumpers, the shadows of trees, meandering pedestrians, and more) which is what makes it so critical for training these autonomous systems. On top of that, every single element you see is completely customizable with code.
When did you first get into the technical area of your startup? What drew you to it?
I started programming video games when I was in high school and this quickly grew into a love for all things computer graphics. During university, I spent some time at Pixar working on animated movies and then spent a few years at Microsoft helping to launch a new version of the XBox. From movies to games, I was obsessed with the feeling of unlimited potential that virtual worlds presented. There’s something really special about writing code that uses fundamentally simple math as building blocks to produce incredibly immersive, beautiful, and detailed imagery. It’s one of those simultaneous left brain/right brain stimulants that combines logic with creativity that I find fascinating. Also, graphics are just cool! Nerd cool.
What is the story behind how you started Parallel Domain?
During my time at Pixar and Microsoft, I had the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of computer graphics from some of the best in the world. During my time in Apple’s Special Projects Group, I saw firsthand how one of the most successful companies was building the next generation of AI and autonomous systems. At Apple, I was tasked with building a team to help harness graphics and simulation techniques to accelerate that AI development. However, what started as a nagging feeling in the back of my head grew into sleepless nights awake at 2am thinking, “Even for one of the smartest companies in the world, this is an extremely hard problem where progress is just way too slow relative to how quickly the technology is evolving around us.”
Convinced that there must be a better way, I left Apple in 2017 and founded Parallel Domain. Our mission is to accelerate the development of AI and autonomous systems - especially those that have the potential to drastically improve the quality of life of billions of people. The biggest bottleneck in AI development is the collection and labeling of massive volumes of data needed to train, test, and deploy robust systems. In some cases, this is a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar effort. In other cases, it may not even be possible to collect the types of data needed. Our platform enables our customers to generate the volumes of data that they need to deploy their autonomous systems quickly and safely.
We think of nerds as people who are obsessed with something (see our blog post on the subject). What are you nerdy about or obsessed with?
On the work side, I'm all about the intersection of computer graphics and AI. There's an incredible potential in teaching machines inside of virtual worlds, and I love applying computer graphics to solving real-world problems. Machines don't learn like humans and virtual training actually lends itself much better to the strengths of machine learning. The opportunity to save lives and improve our planet is both thrilling and humbling. Our customers are building products that have real, tangible impacts on the world, from delivering medicine and supplies to assisting the drivers that currently suffer more than one million annual traffic deaths.
In my personal life, I'm obsessed with music! I was lucky to grow up in a small town with a great music director. I've been playing drums since I was a kid and have played in just about every type of band from punk rock to jazz. I love finding ways to exercise both the mathematical and creative sides and I’ve found drumming to be a great outlet for that kind of energy. Looking back, I’m thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had: in high school we qualified to compete on stage at Lincoln Center and in college we played sold-out shows with jazz greats like Joe Lovano, Roy Hargrove, and Eddie Palmieri. The posters from those shows hang on my wall in the PD office! I still play almost every day and love it.
What is your advice to budding technical founders who haven’t yet jumped off to launch their new company?
Take a page out of Nike's book - just do it! I remember playing out all of the pros and cons of leaving my stable job for a risky startup. The fear can be paralyzing. But I underestimated the biggest pro: the satisfaction and pride you get from building something of your own. There's no better feeling than taking the leap, and once you look back, you'll wish you had done it sooner.
Are you a founder in the smart hardware or machine learning sector? Let’s talk! Leave a comment or get in touch with Ubiquity Ventures.
Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focusing on early-stage investments in software beyond the screen, primarily smart hardware and machine intelligence applications.