CEO Kip Frey exits sound technology company Zenph

Staff writerAugust 15, 2011 

Kip Frey, who embarked on an ambitious plan to capitalize on Zenph Innovation Studio's ground-breaking sound technology when he joined the company in November 2009, has stepped down as CEO.

Frey said his decision to depart the Durham-based company was triggered by a disagreement with the privately held company's board of directors over its future.

"Sometimes in business, you have good-faith disagreements about strategy. Sometimes those disagreements lead to really hard decisions," Frey said.

Frey declined to discuss specifics. "It's John and Mitch's company to run, and I wish them very well," he said. "The more emphasis on the future, the better."

Frey was referring to company founder and chairman John Q. Walker and venture capitalist Mitch Mumma of Intersouth Partners, which led a $10.9 million round of investment in Zenph in 2009. Mumma joined Zenph's board in conjunction with that investment; Frey himself was a partner at Intersouth who got so psyched about Zenph's potential that he left the venture capital firm to join Zenph.

Frey stressed that he continues to "believe the company has a great future. I believe the talent in the company is the best I have seen assembled. I'm going to help them in any way I can. I want Zenph to succeed." Frey continues to have an ownership stake in the business.

Walker, who was CEO before Frey took the helm and serves as chief technology officer, has stepped in as interim CEO in the wake of Frey's departure.

"I think John will do a great job leading the company," Frey said.

Walker didn't mention any disagreements between Frey and the board in an interview earlier this morning but said he tried and failed to talk Frey into staying with the business.

"I'm sorry to see him go," said Walker. "It was one of the thrills of my life to work with him...We were really lucky to have him for a good long run here."

Walker declined, via a company spokeswoman, to discuss Frey's comments about a disagreement.

Founded in 2002, privately held Zenph is best know for its critically acclaimed albums that recreate historical performances by legendary pianists such as Art Tatum on a computer-controlled piano. Under Frey the company began developing software products and made a major push into stage performances, expanding from just a handful of employees to 34 in the process.

Walker said that when Zenph acquired a small Massachusetts music software company in March, TimeWarp Studios, that gave the business three people with CEO experience -- Frey, Walker and TimeWarp founder George Litterst. Litterst, who joined Zenph as director of software product management, has been promoted to chief creative officer in conjunction with Frey's departure.

Zenph isn't searching for a permanent CEO right now, and Walker said that he may end up filling that role.

"We are through a big transition," Walker said. "I have lots of gaps in my experience but, between me and George together, I think we can do this. We have both run companies...before."

Walker, who declined to disclose Zenph's revenue, said the business continues to move forward. That includes today's official release of RePerform, a software product that provides what the company touts as unprecedented music-editing capabilities for Yamaha Disklavier Pro and Disklavier pianos. That software was released as a beta version in March. The company's latest live production, "Zenph Presents Jazz Legends: Gershwin at the Piano," which features recreations of the composer playing solo piano, recently debuted at the Newport Music Festival and will appear at Raleigh Little Theatre beginning Sept. 15.

Zenph also has completed development of its virtual bass and is working on a virtual drum and saxophone that will extend the company's ability to recreate music performances of the past.

"My job, at the end of the year, is to deliver the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing," Walker said.

Frey has been one of the Triangle's most successful entrepeneurs. His last software company, OpenSite Technologies, fetched $542 million when it was sold to publicly traded Siebel Systems at the height of the dot-com bubble. He also knows his way around copyright law -- he practiced intellectual property for five years after graduating from Duke University's law school -- which was a plus for Zenph because its new performances of classic recording create new copyrights.

Frey declined to say what he plans to do next, but he did say "there haven't been any discussions" concerning a possible return to Intersouth.

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