ROLI CEO Roland Lamb was walking home from his office in East London three years ago when his phone rang. “Hans Zimmer just called the office line and he was asking for you,” said one of his employees who was still in the office.
Zimmer is the respected German composer who has scored over 150 movies including “The Lion King,” “Gladiator,” and “Inception.”
A few minutes later, Lamb’s phone rang again. “Hi, this is Hans Zimmer,” the voice said. “I heard about your Seaboard, I’m in London, I want to see it.”
The Seaboard is ROLI’s only product. It’s a futuristic version of the piano that lets you press down parts of the keys to change how they sound. The surface isn’t hard like a keyboard, it’s made of a springy, foam-like material that can be touched or pressed to make different noises. It’s curved, too, so you can run your fingers over it.
Business Insider met with Lamb at ROLI’s office in East London, where he talked about his product, as well as his aspirations for it. He doesn’t see the Seaboard as a new type of piano, instead, he describes it as “a bona fide new musical instrument.”
Lamb is sitting in a small, sound-proof room in the middle of ROLI’s office space. It’s filled with Seaboards of various sizes, as well as musician Marco Parisi who demonstrated the product to us. Lamb describes meeting Parisi as “one of the most important landmarks for me in the history of this whole project.”
Business Insider points out that most people think of a startup as building a software product like an app or website, not a hardware manufacturer that builds musical instruments. Lamb, however, sees ROLI “as an experiences company. We’re trying to deliver new experiences to people.”
That’s rather different from your run of the mill software startup (although ROLI has acquired two software companies along the way.) “We see ourselves in parallel to other companies that are creating new kinds of connected devices,” Lamb says. “Whether it’s wearables or connected home or connected music.”
Ask Lamb a question and he’ll often sit back, pause, and carefully plan what he’s about to say. There’s no room for off the cuff answers. Lamb moved to Japan after leaving high school to study Zen Buddhism, and went on to study Classical Chinese and Sanskrit Philosophy at Harvard University.
Lamb says he came up for the idea for the Seaboard while sitting at a piano at the Royal College of Art in London and “thinking about music and design.” He closed his eyes, he said, and played a handful of notes. It didn’t quite make the sound he wanted, though. Instead of playing three notes together, he wanted to be able to press the key once and change the note instead.
ROLI has gone on to attract attention from some big names in the music industry. Lamb says that when he started the business he created a list of famous people who he wanted to get Seaboards in front of. He says that “eight out of 10” of them now have the device.
One person who Lamb was initially unsuccessful in reaching was musician Stevie Wonder. He tried to get in touch with him to give him a Seaboard but wasn’t able to. However, years later, people representing Wonder actually contacted ROLI inquiring about the Seaboard.
ROLI announced in May that it had raised $27 million (£20.7 million) in a funding round led by Foundry Group, with participation from BGF Ventures, and Founders Fund, as well as existing investors Balderton Capital, Index Ventures, and Universal Music Group.
What’s it like raising money from Universal Music Group? Surprisingly, Lamb says it’s not too different from normal tech venture capital funds. “In the big picture it’s quite similar,” he said. “Maybe slightly different points of emphasis so their domain knowledge about some aspects of investments might not be quite as strong as leading global VC firms but it’s not far off.”
Lamb says that ROLI will continue to develop its keyboard product, but hints that it has explored alternative ideas for new musical instruments. “We’re … totally open to considering other form factors and other applications of the technology a little bit down the road,” he says. “There’s all kinds of exciting ideas that have been germinating.”
Right now those ideas continue to come from ROLI’s London office. It’s a busy place, with musicians and developers wandering around. Sky News visited the day before to livestream Parisi playing a Seaboard, and Lamb has to dash off to another interview. Days after we visit, the office hosts a group performance with lots of customers playing their Seaboards together.
Many of ROLI’s famous customers are based in Los Angeles. Would it be easier for ROLI to move its team to the US? Well, no, Lamb is committed to staying in London: “The reason was that I fell in love with a woman and she was in London and I had to be near her so I moved over here. Fortunately, she’s now my wife so Britain is not just great for business, it’s also great for love.”
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