WLI Entrepreneur Spotlight: Mouna El Khatib

Mouna El Khatib, CEO and Co-Founder of AONdevices, Inc

In this edition of the WLI Entrepreneurial Blog, we are introducing you to Mouna El Khatib, CEO and co-founder of AONDevices, the ultra-low power Edge AI company. Mouna also serves on our Women’s Leadership Council and runs the WLI Entrepreneurial Committee. So, while we knew she grew up in Morocco, we asked her to indulge us by telling us about her background and what it was like growing up there.

Mouna will immediately tell you that she is proud of her diverse culture. Born in Morocco, Casablanca, she was driven to excel from a very young age. Her grandfather and father, who are well known in Casablanca, were both educators and they fanned the spark of her desire to explore and learn, which has remained with her in throughout her career and personal life. That same spark drove her brothers and sisters into advanced scientific careers. Mouna is also proud of her ties to the Belgian and American cultures.

Q: You decided at a very early age to pursue engineering. Tell us about that.

Yes, I was always fascinated by math and science. After high-school I started one of the most intense studies of my life: the preparatory classes to enter the engineering program of the “Grandes Ecoles”. A grande ecole is a French institution of higher education that chiefly admits students based on ranking and exams. Students typically complete two or three years of dedicated preparatory classes for admission. The first two years of this curriculum are very rigid and intense. At the end of the two years and after an extremely selective and competitive nationwide exam, I was selected for entrance into the engineering program of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Electricité et de Mécanique (ENSEM).

Q: Tell us about your early career experiences.

In 2000, after I got my engineering degree, my sister, Najwa Moughabghab, who is an analog design expert and currently Senior Technical Manager at Elevate Semiconductor, invited me to attend advanced Digital Systems Engineering and Digital Signal Processing programs at UCI. Shortly after I got my certificate, I accepted a job offer at Conexant Systems.

I worked in multiple engineering roles as a designer, chip architect and system engineer at both Conexant and Qualcomm, and both companies helped foster my growth. In addition, I had multiple management and chip lead roles, which gave me the bigger scope of looking at solutions, not just the design and engineering side.

While my main role was in engineering, I worked closely with cross-functional teams. Marketing and customer interactions are areas that have always intrigued me, and I significantly contributed in these spaces throughout my career at both Qualcomm and Conexant. While at Conexant, I was selected to be a part of a program called “Value Team”, where we came up with marketing strategies, contributed to marketing roadmaps and discussions. That experience helped me build my substantial business plan for AONDevices and succeed in the business-side of building a company from the ground up.

Throughout my career, I received multiple high-performance and innovation awards. I was most often recognized for my sense of ownership and my result-orientated, can-do attitude.

Q: What was your vision for AONDevices and what led you to start a company?

The vision was very simple. After working in voice and audio for 18 years, and becoming an expert in that field, I knew what the problem was, and I wanted to find the solution. That is how I always go after things. Based on my extensive experience in audio, I knew traditional digital signal processing algorithms can’t perfectly recognize audio when the background is very noisy. The problem worsens for always-on battery-operated devices because the standard pre-processing algorithms require too much power to resolve the issues.

AI today exists a lot in labs and research, but you don’t see a lot of applications with AI in production. You mostly see general processors or DSPs utilizing for AI algorithms, but bringing AI applications to fruition is not easy so we had to research and make sure we could bring it to production. We researched the issue and found that application-specific deep learning neural networks can be used to solve audio problems at power levels appropriate for battery-operated devices. We are currently expanding the concept to other applications.

AONDevices Core Team Photo
AONDevices, September 2020 core team meeting

Q: Tell us about AONDevices.

Our vision is to become number one in application-specific Edge AI processors with high accuracy at ultra-low power. This is a new category that does not exist today and is something we want to drive in the market. Our initial focus is on Voice and Audio and we are expanding our applications to other sensors.

Our AONVoice™️ AI Processor is the first in a family of application-specific edge AI processors that we are developing. AONVoice™️ is optimized for processing microphone data for voice and sound recognition. Benchmarked against competitive offerings, AONVoice™️delivers best-in-class recognition in real-world ambient noise conditions at the lowest power. We are expanding our family of application specific edge AI processors to support other sensor categories.

We are really excited about AONVoice™️ technology because it promises to unleash the power of smartphones and other battery-powered consumer devices to address touchless use cases that are needed to keep us all safe and healthy in the times of a global pandemic like coronavirus.

We are excited that we are already shipping IP to large semiconductors companies for integration in high volume applications and are also planning our own chip tapeout soon to demonstrate our new innovations in silicon.

Our IP consists of an AI processor, as well as tool suites that ease the training, burden, and cost of data acquisition. AI has 3 steps: the hardware, the software core training, and data preparation for acquisition – and AONDevices provides a full suite.

I am proud of the fact that we initially raised our seed round of funding and then by the time we had started going for our Series A, we became profitable, so we stopped pursuing fundraising to focus on the technology. We have the revenue and now are just focusing on the growth.

Q: What excites you about being an entrepreneur?

For me, the most exciting aspect of entrepreneurship is the freedom of innovation and the fast pace of execution. In large companies, there are a lot of processes you have to go through before you can execute on a project, which takes a lot of time and can delay the execution.

Engineers in technology startups are required to come up with novel and creative solutions and there are very few barriers between ideas and their realization. You come up with the idea and immediately go and execute. On top of that, there is the direct interaction with customers that allows you to get a deep understanding of the product requirements and immediate feedback on the company designs and solutions. One of the things I feel most passionately about is advocating for the customer, whether I am involved in a big or small company. My focus is always on customers and revenue. Everything else is nice to have but for me, as the saying goes, “customer is king”.

The most exciting aspect of my job is to define and create a product that solves the customers’ problem. I enjoy the initial excitement when I get an idea for a new product or product feature, but I also get a lot of satisfaction from seeing it slowly grow from a concept to a finished product. Bringing a successful product to market requires a sequence of innovations and gradual improvements. Overall, for me, it is extremely rewarding to start a company from scratch and to grow a business while doing what I love most, engineering work.

AONDevices EvoNexus Irving office Photo
AONDevices, at EvoNexus Irvine office

Q: What are some mistakes entrepreneurs, especially novice entrepreneurs, make and what additional advice do you have?

I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs lately and I’m amazed that everyone talks only about raising money. This is shocking to me because in my mind start-ups are about the products and the innovation you are bringing to the field. Finding the necessary capital to execute your vision is important but it should not be the main focus of the company.

Instead, I think the most important thing is to focus on finding customers first. The minute I got my legal documents that AONDevices was a real company, I started talking to customers. Approach customers early and involve them in defining and building your product. You have to make sure that people are willing to pay money for your product and put resources into developing end products based on your solution because if not, you cannot survive. There is nothing better than customer traction to validate the idea and the resulting product.

It is also essential to have a network of friends and connections. For a new entrepreneur, this is usually the first treasure you have to tap into. After the initial phase, it is great to have access to an incubator.

EvoNexus was instrumental for us and we are very thankful to the mentors. We are also thankful to many other organizations through which we built a name and a network of connections such as GSA, OCBJ, Qualcomm Ventures, IIC, SBDC @ UCI Applied Innovation, Mathworks, Synopsys and many others.

Innovating and architecting a company is as important as inventing in the technical sense. Innovating a company includes things like where are you going to get the money and the tools. For example, for EDA tools I had many meetings with EDA companies to get the best deal. Also, EvoNexus was helpful in providing office space, lab, and mentors. When you spend time on the critical aspect of learning how to innovate the company, it dramatically saved AONDevices money and time that I would have spent trying to get funding.

Finally, it is very helpful to work with advisors. When you first start out, you need to find a way to fill all of the roles (marketing, legal, etc. ) and when you do not have the money to bring those roles on full time, working with advisors is a great way to do it. You can partner with them and give them stock and they will advise you on that specific area. For example, a start-up does not need full-time legal so if you have a legal advisor, they can help you with that.

Q: What advice do you have for young women who would like to become entrepreneurs?

The 3 golden rules:

  1. Make sure you love the product and the idea.
  2. Select a Great Team including engineering, board members, advisors, financial, legal… all functions have a critical role. If you do not have the budget to hire all of these positions, utilize advisors.
  3. Build around the customer.

Once you start, try to show progress at the bootstrapping stage and use the help of mentors and advisors.

AONDevices Team Lunch Photo
AONDevices team, Jan 2020 Lunch, Newport Beach

Q: What were/are the challenges of being a female entrepreneur?

There are a many articles describing the difficulties women encounter as entrepreneurs such as difficulties in raising money and navigating the system. There are also a lot of articles describing how hard it is for women to build a career in the engineering world. I have seen and experienced many of these challenges, but let me tell you, when you love what you do and you back yourself with a strong team, none of that really matters. If you know what you want and you stick to it, the rest is all secondary… either you get it or not… it will remain secondary! My advice is stick to your female nature and do what you love.

Q: What do you think we can do to make the semiconductor industry more attractive and retain women?

First, I think you have to give women high responsibility roles. Then, once you do, they will surprise you with their success. Successful women in high-visibility positions will serve as examples for others. Many smart and talented young women are avoiding the semiconductor industry because they see it as a male-dominated environment where they have little chance of building a career.

I always have faith in women. At AONDevices, there are currently 7 US engineers, 3 of whom are women. In addition, we have a team of contractors overseas that includes female engineers. Ultimately, I believe that the more successful women there are in the business, the more women are going to try to join and follow their example.

Q: What does GSA WLI mean to you? Why is the initiative important?

It means a lot and my role as the lead of the WLI Entrepreneurial Program Committee is very important to me. I want to use my experience to improve things as much as possible. I hope I can contribute to a new and better environment for future generations of female entrepreneurs. I know from my contacts in the industry that there are many smart women with great ideas waiting on the sidelines, because they think it is impossible for them to realize their dreams. If we can all work together to lower the resistance women face, it will benefit us as a society.

With the rise of AI, we have to be very careful with gender bias and pay special attention to this subject as AI is being used today to create the robots of the future and those robots will have a big role in our society. So, if we do not start unraveling gender bias today, those robots will learn gender bias and the problem will amplify even more than what we see today. With more men creating AI today, it will automatically be biased towards a male brain and their way of thinking. If you do not have equal weight to men and women creating AI, you will end up with a bigger problem.

Mouna At Home Photo
At home with my husband, Dr. Koen Lampaert, and my kids, Jonas and Samy Lampaert

Q: What are some of your hobbies outside of work?

I love spending time playing with my kids. My favorite sports are tennis and swimming. I also enjoy reading all genres. I enjoy all forms of art: music, theater, literature, and most importantly painting. I used to paint a lot and for me designing a circuit is very similar to painting on a canvas. The design has to be simple and elegant. It has to be perfect and attractive to the customers.

My family are all into music – my husband and son, Jonas, both play in rock bands. At the age of 10, Jonas even played with school of rock keyboard at the House of Blues and has sung and played guitar at multiple concerts! My youngest son, Samy, is now following in their footsteps and also playing drums. We are an “all art/coding” family.

I strongly believe a variety of experiences lead to creativity in our semiconductor field, especially with the rise of AI. Once you learn different things, it gives you inspiration to create and design.

Q: The most important question of all…outside of your laptop and phone, what’s the most important thing you have with you?

I’m going to break the rules and say my phone! I do everything on my phone – personal, technical, take notes and enjoy the latest innovations in HW and SW.

Mouna was so fun and inspiring to interview! We appreciate her taking the time to talk with us and give so much amazing advice to women engineers and entrepreneurs. In addition to AONDevices, you can find Mouna participating on our GSA Women’s Leadership Council and leading our Entrepreneurial Program Committee. To learn more about GSA’s Women’s Leadership Initiative and get involved, please visit https://www.gsaglobal.org/womens-leadership/.

Mouna, a member of GSA’s Women’s Leadership Council, and CEO and Co-Founder of AONDevices, Inc., an AI chip startup with focus on voice and audio. She has over 18 years of experience in the semiconductor business with a strong track record as an excellent engineer, manager and cross-functional team leader. Prior to AONdevIces, she was the system lead and principal chip architect at Qualcomm for a family of audio codec chips with integrated voice activation. Before that, she held the director of VLSI position at Conexant, managing audio SOC architecture and design. She is one of the key developers of Conexant’s PC-HD audio codecs, USB audio codecs/DSP and Voice input processor SOCs for smart speakers. Mouna holds an engineering degree from Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Electricité et de Mécanique (ENSEM), 11 US patents, 3 pending and multiple awards.