In memory of Sam Blackman

Two years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Sam Blackman. Blackman – founder of a tech company called Elemental which sold to Amazon for a quarter billion dollars – spent 2 hours with me. Despite having an incredibly busy schedule, he took time out of his day to talk to a high school journalist. He took it seriously, answered questions deeply and honestly, and was one of the best interviews I have ever done.

Blackman died suddenly last weekend. I am republishing the interview I had with him as a way to shed light on the life he had and who he was.

In this interview, I recall him talking about the future Elemental has and how excited he was to see what the tech industry looks like in the next five years. The future has a lot to thank Blackman for.

This interview remains one of my most popular posts of all time

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People constantly take technology for granted. We forget that phones once couldn’t answer our questions or play movies with perfect resolution. And very few people know that one of the pioneers in this field works out of an office on SW Broadway and Oak.

Sam Blackman, CEO and Co-Founder of Elemental Technologies, started the company with some buddies he had met when he worked as an engineer at Pixelworks, a Portland semi-conductor company. He designed circuits for TVs and projectors that would take in and process video then make it look beautiful on the screen.

“We had known what market we wanted to go after the entire time. This was before the iPad, before the iPhone, when watching a video on your phone was something that a couple people did but it was a bad experience,” Blackman says. “But we thought that these devices were going to get much better in the coming years.”

They couldn’t have been more right. Blackman and his colleagues took all of the experience they had picked up working six years at Pixelworks and created Elemental in 2006. They knew that as these devices got better, companies would need someone to distribute the video content in high enough resolution.

“If you were in the industry, there were people talking about this happening, but there weren’t really people investing in great technology.”

But they didn’t just pioneer an industry, they also created a whole new technology to allow them to offer the best product. Instead of using the CPU chip used by most video processing companies, Elemental began using a faster chip with higher resolution called the Nvidia GPU.

They offered content faster and at higher quality than their competitors.
The company achieves speed and quality by taking the content and throwing a lot of it away. For example, since the human eye is not very sensitive to subtle color differences, they cut a lot of the color pixels from the content. But the human eye is very sensitive to light change, so the company saves almost all of the brightness content. By compressing these pixels, Elemental shrinks a 96-gigabyte per second stream to about 30 megabits per second.

“All of the sudden we had a solution for taking big screen video and making it play perfectly on a mobile device,” says Blackman.

With the launch of the iPhone in 2008, followed by the iPad, everyone wanted content viewable on their mobile devices.

Now, when companies like CNN, ESPN or HBO want to share content with their users on different platforms, they go to Elemental.

Not only is Elemental one of the leaders in their field, they are also inciting change elsewhere in the community. In fact, Elemental is constantly going to companies like Intel and Sony asking them to make a new product to produce content in a better, faster way.

“They say maybe. And three years later we find out if they listened or not. Now that we are part of Amazon, they will listen a lot closer.”

On Sept. 1, Elemental Technologies was bought by Amazon.com for $500 million.
“Technology is where it is at. There is so much change coming so rapidly. There is infinite opportunity,” says Sam Blackman.

About Sam:

Age: late-mid-30s (39)
How old are your two kids?: 7 and 8, and they are future Cardinals
Where did you grow up?: Portland, Oregon
Hobbies: Ultimate Frisbee and progressive politics
Fun Fact: The Elemental-sponsored 4K 4Charity Fun Run is coming up on
October 21st.

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