In 2006, Umesh Sachdev and Ravi Saraogi, batchmates at Jaypee Institute of Information Technology, Noida, started experimenting with a mobile theft security product, before starting a company called Singularis Technologies. After the company won a few global competitions and a few large contracts, the Delhi-based duo decided to delve deep into this field, giving up offers from software services giants such as Infosys and Adobe.
In 2008, they started speech-based solutions firm Uniphore Software Systems.
Today, with a few premium clients in its kitty, Uniphore provides integration of speech recognition and voice biometrics with smart mobile technology, to deliver solutions on the cloud. The company has developed two cloud-based platforms - VoiceNet, which is designed for feature phones and provides human-like conversations using interactive voice response, multilingual speech recognition and voice biometrics; and text-to-speech, giving birth to a voice communications platform.
The platform offers customisable profiles, automated transactions, information on demand, interactive conversations, voice recordings and mCAS, a smart mobility application development platform.
Even as Singularis had seen initial success and roped in a few big clients such as Mahanagar Telephone Nigam and Bharat Sanchar Nigam, Sachdev and Saraogi began to realise it would take more than this for the company to scale up.
"We got in touch with Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-M)'s Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a renowned academician who plays a role in government policymaking and is on the board of some companies," recalls Sachdev, chief executive of Uniphore. "He introduced us to the institute's incubation centre, Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI)."
After a few visits to IIT-M and interactions with entrepreneurs there, Sachdev and Saraogi decided to shift to Chennai.
However, RTBI was only focused on facilitating rural-inclusive technology and business innovation. "So, we came up with the idea that vernacular voice would be the easiest medium to reach the rural market. Even an illiterate person with a low-cost phone could dial a number, speak to a computer and find information or make a transaction - that's how the roots of Uniphore were laid," says Sachdev.
Jhunjhunwala says, "Uniphore is an innovative young company, providing fascinating mobile-based solutions, developed in partnership with IIT-M. Uniphore will continue making a significant difference in speech and mobility space."
Journey so far
From a manually operated call centre for villagers in Tamil Nadu to resolving issues using the local language, Uniphore gradually evolved into technology-led voice-based solutions provider.
In 2008, Uniphore secured its first client, Thomson Reuters.
Today, Uniphore has an impressive list of clients, including State Bank of India, Axis Bank, Airbus, ITC and Cholamandalam. Sources say the company's annual revenue is about Rs 10 crore; through the past three years, it has risen about three times. Sachdev says Uniphore aims to record $20 million (about Rs 124 crore) in annual revenue by 2017-18, primarily backed by expansion abroad.
"We expect around 20 per cent of our revenue for this financial year to come from foreign operations," he says. "For the next few months, we are focused only on Southeast Asia and West Asia, before we expand into other regions."
Initially, Uniphore received seed funding of $100,000 from investors, including RTBI and National Research Development Corporation. With the company turning profitable since the second year of operations, Sachdev and Saraogi didn't see the need to raise more funds.
However, as the company considered expanding globally, it raised an undisclosed sum from a consortium of investors, including Indian Angel Network, YourNest Angel Fund and Ray Stata (co-founder of Analog Devices), in March this year. These funds will primarily be used to enter Southeast Asia and West Asia. Uniphore will also seek to strengthen its speech-based products and create more context-based and personalised applications.
Nagaraja Prakasam, mentor & investor, Indian Angel Network, says, "Continuing on our theme on backing inclusive innovations, we are optimistic of the success of Uniphore, which has already completed six successful years. In a country of 1.2 billion people, where only 250 million speak English, vernacular speech recognition can enable financial inclusion and information dissemination to farmers. Uniphore is also a great example of solving the problems of a billion people and this opens opportunities for another four billion in emerging nations. We feel the passion Umesh and Ravi bring along, as well as their domain knowledge and expertise, makes all this possible."
Siri for India
Uniphore's technology can be used to develop a business-to-consumer (B2C) product such as intelligent personal assistant Siri, available on iOS devices. This virtual assistant lets users operate smartphones by voice commands. While many have tried to develop such expertise for other operating systems, most have failed due to the diversity in the accents of consumers in various markets.
Sachdev, however, says as of now, Uniphore is only looking at the enterprise business; it has no plans to develop an application for consumers.
"The reason why we started this company was we believed after touch, speech would be the next interface; that is becoming a reality now. We will be more than happy if a few years from now, someone wants to develop a product such as Siri on our platform. But as a company, we are currently focused on the B2B (business-to-business) segment, not B2C," he adds.
Name : Uniphore Software Systems
Area of business : Speech-based mobile solutions
Started operations : 2008
Gross revenue : Rs 10 crore every year
Break-even : Turned profitable in 2010
Funding : Seed funding of $100,000 from IIT-M's incubator Rural Technology and Business Incubator, National Research Development Corporation and social enterprise incubator Villgro. Undisclosed amount from a consortium of investors including Indian Angel Network, YourNest Angel Fund, and Ray Stata, co-founder of Analog Devices
Top clients : State Bank of India, Axis Bank, American Express, Airbus, ITC
Voice-based solutions such as voice SMS, voice recording and interactive voice recognition, which Uniphore specialises in, will be a great tool in India, as literacy isn't a barrier in using these. These can be rolled out across verticals such as education (English Seekho, educating farmers on best practices and rural help lines), health care (remote interactive diagnosis from cities and counselling services) and automotive (control over navigation, infotainment system and phones). Speech-based services have a high potential for usage and growth, as these can be offered in local languages, ensuring relevance and context.
These voice-based applications are likely to expand into lower income segments. For operators, these services are more beneficial compared to text-based ones, as voice generates higher revenue. Voice-based solutions will not only render more revenue for operators in the commoditised saturated voice market but also lead to innovative applications in dual mode (voice+video, voice+SMS and voice+data).
Virtual assistants launched by a few leading smartphone brands are just the beginning of innovation in this field. Improvement in voice recognition and other related technologies will drive the success of these speech-based services. The future lies in voice, as consumers will move away from typing to more convenient options.