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Speech-recognition for customer satisfaction

Chennai-based start-up Uniphore uses speech technology to make any software understand and respond to natural human speech

Uniphore co-founders Umesh Sachdev and Ravi Saraogi

T E Narasimhan
New technology is more a challenge than a benefit for many in the country, where, according to the 2011 Census, 26 per cent of the population is still illiterate. For instance, a farmer, with little access to technology or education, is likely to find it difficult to follow pre-recorded instructions on a phone and get the latest update on weather, crop prices or bank facilities. It would be way easier if they could speak.

Uniphore, a Chennai-based start-up, has developed a speech-based technology to recognise and take instructions through voice communication. At present, its products are being used by banking, agriculture and stock trading companies. Many stock traders in Tier-II and -III cities have stopped calling their brokers; now, they communicate with virtual assistant Akeira, who provides special advice on the latest stocks and trends.

Information technology major Infosys co-founder S Gopalakrishnan, who recently invested in the start-up, said, "Uniphore's vision of solving the human-machine interface challenges is very exciting; the company has already made substantial progress with their solution."

A month since Uniphore raised funds from Gopalakrishnan and a few others, IDG Ventures invested in it at the beginning of June. It has also attracted investment from Indian Angel Network and venture capital firms.

The company aims to become a Billion Dollar Product company from India and the Oracle in the space it operates globally.

  • Company: Uniphore
  • Specalisation: Speech-based solutions
  • Founders: Umesh Sachdev and Ravi Saraogi
  • Investors: S Gopalakrishnan, Indian Angel Network, venture capital fund Yournet, Ray Start-up, IDG Ventures
  • Fund raised till date: Around $10 million
  • Yearly revenue: Between $7 million and $10 million

Founders & their journeys
Umesh Sachdev and Ravi Saraogi were classmates at an engineering college in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Sachdev's father was chief executive at one of the Tata Group companies; Saraogi hails from a business family.

Both got good job offers after graduation but they were eager to be entrepreneurs. Awards won at different international competitions gave them the encouragement to pursue their dreams.

In the late 1990s, soon after graduating from college, they launched their first start-up - Singularis Technologies. Their technology, adopted by both Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, helped track lost phones. But, after operating the company successfully for two years, they didn't know how to scale up operations.

To solve this conundrum, Sachdev and Saraogi met representatives of telecom companies, business analysts, government officials and engineers, one of whom was Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a faculty member at IIT-Madras.

Jhunjhunwala agreed to help them if they moved base to IIT-Madras business incubator, which was supporting and building start-ups with rural relevance. In 2007, the duo moved to Chennai, and spent months in field research in rural Tamil Nadu. They found people wanted to use their mobile phone to access personalised information; and, they wanted to use their language through voice services, not text messages.

On a pilot basis, they set up a four-member call centre, to provide information easily available on the internet to callers from three districts in Tamil Nadu. In a few days, they had clocked 10,000 calls.

The potential was evident but scaling was a challenge. They would need a work force of at least 3,000 to meet the demand. For Uniphore, the solution was replacing men with machines.

In 2008, after a year of testing prototypes in the labs, they launched Uniphore Software Systems. It designs and delivers speech-based enterprise mobility service applications to help connect businesses with their customers and employees in real time. Now, they have about 50 clients ranging from the agriculture sector to banking and telecommication. Their solutions provide secure, personalised information, in local languages to any low-end mobile phones. It supports 24 global and 14 Indian languages, and integrate them with voice and text message follow-up.

For example, Sachdev said, Uniphore has a voice-based mobile banking solution.

When a customer calls the system and authenticates their identity through voice biometrics, it uses the speech recognition and the system engages the user in an interactive conversation to process the requested transaction.

Uniphore's flagship product is AuMina, which is into speech analytics. Its other product Akeira is being used for the government's financial inclusion programme Jan Dhan Yojana.

To make the solutions customer-friendly, Uniphore offers a pay-as-you-go, transaction-linked pricing - most of the solutions are hosted on the Cloud.

More the users, better the margins, said Sachdev. The company has been profitable since its second year.

But its research and development costs are also high, and revenues are expected to pick up with the volumes. It needs to keep adding languages and expanding infrastructure.

Funding, however, has never been a problem. IIT-Madras Research Park helped Uniphore raise its first round of $100,000 from National Research Development Corporation in August 2008. Since then, it has nearly $10 million.

Challenges ahead
Speech recognition technology is new and it takes some convincing before client agree to adopt it.

Also, talent acquisition - especially getting experienced people in this sector - is a challenge. Now, the company is planning to go global and it is likely to face operational challenges.

Though their valuation is quite high already, they plan to become a billion dollar company, even the market leader in the next seven years or so. In 2017, they aim to clock a revenue of $20 million dollars.

To support the growth, the company plans to expand operations, especially in the US. With the new round of funding, it could set up offices in Silicon Valley.

It also has offices in Dubai and Manila - half of Uniphore's clients are from outside India. Infosys co-founder Gopalakrishnan said, "Speech-recognition technology will soon be in wide currency across the world. Uniphore's suite of solutions is the cutting edge."

Sachdev said getting Gopalakrishnan on board will not only help Uniphore's business but also to retain talent. It will soon recruit experienced professionals from Microsoft and Adobe.

EXPERT TAKE: Nishant Navin

The global market for speech recognition in 2014 was around $70 billion. It is expected to touch around $110 billion by 2017.

Uniphore, which was focussed on India till now, is looking at global market. Being an Indian company, they can always build on cost competitiveness.

Constant improvement in technology and use of latest electronic hardware are some of the major areas Uniphore should focus. The team plays a crucial role in the business and when expanding outside India, who is going to lead the teams will be important.

They should also look at South America and Africa, which are potentially large markets.

For them, margins are likely to get better with every passing year.

Going forward, I think they can cater to industries such as defence and automobile, where the market is huge.
Nishant Navin, founder and managing partner, DIA Capital Advisors

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First Published: Jun 15 2015 | 12:44 AM IST

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