01 Jun 2014
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Innovation: An Orchestra of One

by Julia Hanna

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Ann Chao discusses the inspiration behind her new startup, Sonation.

As a student, Ann Chao (MBA 2013) loved playing chamber music with HBS friends. But MBAs live busy lives, and their jam sessions were few and far between. "One day I was practicing piano alone in Hamilton Lounge and thought I'd try to play along with a YouTube video of Mendelssohn's Trio in D minor," says Chao. "It was such a clunky experience that I gave up after less than a minute. Music is about personal expression, and most of that is baked into your tempo. I thought that someone must have developed a technology that would adapt to my playing style in real time instead of forcing me to fit a recording."

Chao was right. She found former concert oboist Christopher Raphael, now chair of computer science at Indiana University, who was using predictive modeling to code software that follows the tempo of a practicing musician in real time. Raphael told Chao that he was already working with a Boston-based music producer and entrepreneur, and put the two in touch.

At Chao's urging, the group entered Music+1 (the product's name at the time) in the University-wide Deans' Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge, earning a $15,000 runner-up prize. Shortly thereafter, the three founded Sonation and renamed the product Cadenza.

Chao and her cofounders met with Apple last fall and are focused on developing an iPad and iPhone app for Cadenza, the first in a series of products planned by Sonation. (Cadenza is already available on the Mac.) Chao, who serves as CEO, is working out of the Harvard i-lab and expects to seek seed funding after successfully concluding a Kickstarter campaign which enlisted many renowned musicians as supporters—high-level backers received a private lesson with the principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera. "There's no other technology out there that can get to the core of music-making the way we do," she says. "When I watch and listen to someone use the product, it gives me a glimpse of how we could transform the experience of musicians around the world."

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Class of MBA 2013, Section E
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