Greek spin-off to be­come the voice of Sam­sung

In­noet­ics, a text-to-speech tech firm that grew out of the Athena re­search cen­ter, gets bought up by the Korean elec­tron­ics gi­ant

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY YANNIS PALAIOLOGOS

“We are thrilled that our tech­nol­ogy will be used on such a large scale,” says Aim­il­ios Cha­la­man­daris, a sci­en­tist at the Athena cen­ter of re­search and CEO of In­noet­ics, barely hid­ing his en­thu­si­asm. It took a few tries be­fore we man­aged to touch base over the phone – it’s only been a few days since it was made pub­lic that Sam­sung Elec­tron­ics would buy his com­pany, for close to 50 mil­lion eu­ros, and he is one of the most sought af­ter peo­ple in Greece right now.

As he tells Kathimerini (there is only a limited amount of in­for­ma­tion he is at lib­erty dis­close), Sam­sung plans to use the text-to-speech tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped by In­noet­ics across a wide range of its prod­uct ecosys­tem. More and more of th­ese de­vices will be smart and ca­pa­ble of con­vers­ing with their users as we en­ter the In­ter­net of Things era. For Yannis Ioan­ni­dis, the pres­i­dent of Athena, this means, in short, that “any voice em­a­nat­ing from a Sam­sung de­vice in the years to come will be ‘Greek,’ the prod­uct of Greek tech­nol­ogy.”

The Sam­sung deal is by far the big­gest suc­cess of a Greek re­search cen­ter spinoff. The buy­out agree­ment, which was put to­gether in a few months, stip­u­lates that In­noet­ics will be­come a wholly owned sub­sidiary of the Korean multi­na­tional gi­ant. But the com­pany will re­main based in Greece – some­thing the Greek side in­sisted on in ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Sam­sung’s ex­ec­u­tives had pro­posed mov­ing In­noet­ics to the United States, “but they rec­og­nized the tal­ent pool that ex­ists in Greece,” Ioan­ni­dis notes. In­noet­ics to­day has a staff of seven, but Cha­la­man­daris says it will be “sig­nif­i­cantly aug­mented” as the com­pany is in­te­grated fully into Sam­sung’s op­er­a­tions.

What is it that about In­noet­ics’s tech­nol­ogy that got Sam­sung’s at­ten­tion? First off, it has the ca­pac­ity to un­der­stand 19 lan­guages, a num­ber that will grow fur­ther. Ad­di­tion­ally, the com­pany’s soft­ware learns a lan­guage by lis­ten­ing to a na­tive speaker, whose voice it can then mimic with great ac­cu­racy. This cre­ates the prospect – a rather creepy one to some – of a fu­ture in which ev­ery­thing around us, from our smart­phone dig­i­tal as­sis­tant to our fridge, speaks in our own voice.

Cha­la­man­daris, aged 40 to­day, founded In­noet­ics in 2006 along with Pyrros Tsi­ak­oulis, Spy­ros Rap­tis and Sotiris Kara­bet­sos – all elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing grad­u­ates from the Na­tional Tech­ni­cal Univer­sity of Athens (NTUA). Three of them went on to post­grad­u­ate stud­ies in the UK (Cha­la­man­daris at Im­pe­rial, Tsi­ak­oulis at Cam­bridge, Kara­bet­sos at Brunel) and spe­cial­iz­ing in the same area, they be­came a team in 2006 at Athena, a re­search cen­ter that fo­cuses – among other things – on speech pro­cess­ing.

“The se­ri­ous push for com­mer­cial­iza­tion be­gan in 2012,” says Cha­la­man­daris. That’s when the syn­thetic speech tech­nol­ogy was sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved in terms of “how nat­u­ral and com­pre­hen­si­ble it is” and in its abil­ity to mimic the qual­i­ties of a na­tive speaker, he ex­plains. By con­stantly im­prov­ing their prod­uct, the four founders won three ma­jor awards in four years (ev­ery time they en­tered) at the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh’s Bliz­zard Chal­lenge, the world’s big­gest syn­thetic speech com­pe­ti­tion. They would soon be richly re­warded for their ef­forts.

The Athena fac­tor

The role of Athena on the jour­ney from sci­en­tific jour­nals to in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions and, fi­nally, into the arms of Sam­sung was crit­i­cal. “They [at the re­search cen­ter] be­lieved in the com­pany’s busi­ness prospects and backed it from the start. They gave us ev­ery­thing we needed,” says Cha­la­man­daris.

“The great­est ob­sta­cle for a re­searcher who is try­ing to com­mer­cially ex­ploit his ideas is the need to change the logic of his ap­proach,” he ex­plains. “On the re­search level, your idea only needs to work on the com­puter. For it to be­come a prod­uct, it has to be able to meet dif­fer­ent re­quire­ments, to work on dif­fer­ent op­er­at­ing sys­tems and so on. We needed help to get into that frame of things, and Athena gave it to us.”

“For us it’s like a child that grad­u­ated with straight A’s,” says Pro­fes­sor Ioan­ni­dis. “With the ex­am­ple of In­noet­ics we wanted to show the Greek re­search com­mu­nity that you can achieve some­thing as big as this work­ing in Greece.”

“There are more spin-offs in the works,” the head of Athena con­fides. “We had mech­a­nisms be­fore for lo­cat­ing busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties that could emerge from the re­search we do at the cen­ter, but they weren’t as sys­tem­atic. We now aim to strengthen th­ese mech­a­nisms sig­nif­i­cantly.”

Athena has al­ready proved its en­tre­pre­neur­ial drive with, among other ini­tia­tives, Co­ral­lia, an or­ga­ni­za­tion whose mis­sion is to de­velop in­no­va­tion clus­ters in ar­eas where Greece has a com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage.

Ioan­ni­dis says that leg­isla­tive in­ter­ven­tions in the past three to four years have pro­vided an in­sti­tu­tional frame­work that makes it eas­ier for re­searchers to en­gage in busi­ness ac­tives. The big­gest prob­lem, he stresses, is the stran­gle­hold of the uni­form rules govern­ing the pub­lic sec­tor, which the gov­ern­ment has also im­posed on re­search cen­ters.

“Bu­reau­cracy is a huge ob­sta­cle to re­search,” he says. “As pri­vate law en­ti­ties we come un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the gen­eral gov­ern­ment. This cre­ates obli­ga­tions that we are ex­tremely hard­pressed to com­ply with.” He specif­i­cally points to the sec­tor’s in­clu­sion in the Uni­fied Pay­ment Au­thor­ity and new laws in­creas­ing so­cial se­cu­rity con­tri­bu­tions. “We have around 35 to 40 per­ma­nent re­searchers at the cen­ter and around 300 as­so­ciates who work ac­cord­ing to the projects that are run­ning on fixed-term con­tracts. All of th­ese peo­ple need to be paid and to have their so­cial se­cu­rity con­tri­bu­tions cov­ered ac­cord­ing to the new rules, which are suited only to full-time em­ploy­ees. We had man­aged to be ex­empt in the past, but this is no longer pos­si­ble.”

Like the In­noet­ics team, Ioan­ni­dis is also the prod­uct of so-called “brain cir­cu­la­tion.” A grad­u­ate of the NTUA, as well he got his post­grad­u­ate de­gree from Har­vard and his doc­tor­ate from Berke­ley, and was ap­pointed pro­fes­sor the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin’s Depart­ment of Elec­tri­cal and Com­puter En­gi­neer­ing, one of the pre-em­i­nent schools in this field in the United States. He re­turned to Greece in 1999 so that he could raise his chil­dren “as Greeks, not Amer­i­cans with a Greek dad.”

Aim­il­ios Cha­la­man­daris, aged 40 to­day, founded In­noet­ics in 2006 along with Pyrros Tsi­ak­oulis, Spy­ros Rap­tis and Sotiris Kara­bet­sos.

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