REV­O­LU­TION­IS­ING SPEECH TECH­NOL­OGY

Marwar - - Contents - Text Pooja Mu­jum­dar

Es­tab­lished in 2008, Uniphore Soft­ware Sys­tems be­gan with the mis­sion to solve the large-scale prob­lem of lack of ac­cess to mo­bile-en­abled in­for­ma­tion and ser­vices. And the com­pany has achieved that by of­fer­ing prod­ucts in speech an­a­lyt­ics, vir­tual as­sis­tance and voice bio­met­rics. Ravi Saraogi, Co-founder and COO, tells MARWAR how it all be­gan.

Es­tab­lished in 2008, Uniphore Soft­ware Sys­tems of­fers in­no­va­tive prod­ucts in speech an­a­lyt­ics, vir­tual as­sis­tance and voice bio­met­rics, the mar­ket for which, ac­cord­ing to some re­ports, ex­ceeds USD 20 bil­lion. Ravi Saraogi, Co-founder and COO, tells MARWAR how it all be­gan and how it ex­tended its pres­ence to mul­ti­ple ge­ogra­phies.

THEY SAY THAT CLAR­ITY OF PUR­POSE IS THE FIRST STEP to­wards build­ing a suc­cess­ful and prof­itable busi­ness. For many en­trepreneurs, hav­ing a pur­pose when it comes to busi­ness means defin­ing their core val­ues and pri­or­i­ties and un­der­stand­ing their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties so that they can find their strength. But for Ravi Saraogi, 34, it is all about ad­dress­ing a prob­lem in the mar­ket­place, and Uniphore Soft­ware Sys­tems, the com­pany that he co-founded with Umesh Sachdev in 2008, il­lus­trates this be­lief. As Saraogi, who heads the Asia Pa­cific oper­a­tions, and sales and pre­sales glob­ally for Uniphore, says, “We did not start with a tech idea; it was a large-scale prob­lem that we wanted to solve.”

The prob­lem

At the time Saraogi and Sachdev started out a decade ago, they no­ticed that even though the coun­try was amidst a dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, the ben­e­fits had not made their way to around 70 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion. Saraogi ex­plains, “We saw that peo­ple did not have ac­cess to ba­sic ser­vices like health care, banking and ed­u­ca­tion due to no In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity. Also, the preva­lence of mul­ti­ple di­alects and lack of English lit­er­acy amongst them meant that they did not know how to use the In­ter­net since ev­ery­thing on this global com­puter net­work was in English.” This lack of ac­cess to mo­bile-en­abled in­for­ma­tion and ser­vices, par­tic­u­larly for il­lit­er­ate and semi-lit­er­ate In­di­ans, was a wor­ry­ing is­sue.

The so­lu­tion

Saraogi and Sachdev re­alised that the need of the hour was to make the man­ma­chine in­ter­ac­tion com­pletely seam­less. They put their heads to­gether and came up with the idea of cre­at­ing tech­nol­ogy that would use speech—the most nat­u­ral mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion—to bridge the dig­i­tal divide be­tween ur­ban and ru­ral In­dia. Saraogi says, “We wanted to en­able ev­ery In­dian to ac­cess ba­sic ser­vices in their own lan­guages and di­alects via their mo­bile phones.” In or­der to make this vi­sion a re­al­ity, the duo had to de­velop speech-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy, ma­chine learn­ing and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. And they have been suc­cess­ful at it, for to­day Uniphore’s in­te­grated, smart speech­based ap­pli­ca­tions are not just ca­pa­ble of un­der­stand­ing sev­eral global and In­dian lan­guages but mul­ti­ple di­alects too.

A walk down mem­ory lane

Saraogi de­scribes Uniphore as the story of a hi-tech prod­uct be­ing de­vel­oped out of In­dia to solve some of the big­gest tech­nol­ogy-re­lated prob­lems. And this story be­gan when he and Sachdev went to IIT-Madras, where they started off as project as­so­ci­ates un­der Padma Shri awardee Pro­fes­sor Ashok Jhun­jhun­wala. They had got­ten in touch with him some time af­ter co-found­ing Sin­gu­laris Tech­nolo­gies, their first ven­ture, in 2006. Even though Sin­gu­laris gained global trac­tion with its mo­bile theft se­cu­rity prod­uct, it did not take off as ex­pected. Work­ing with the pro­fes­sor proved to be a stroke of luck for them since they got to learn more about the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in­dus­try and its needs. He also in­tro­duced them to IIT-Madras’ Ru­ral Tech­nol­ogy and Busi­ness In­cu­ba­tor (RTBI), a reg­is­tered not-for-profit so­ci­ety which of­fers men­tor­ship, pre­lim­i­nary fund­ing and in­fra­struc­ture to start-ups with a ru­ral busi­ness model. Saraogi says, “As RTBI was fo­cused on the ru­ral mar­ket, we ven­tured into the vil­lages of Tamil Nadu for our ini­tial re­search, armed with our limited ex­pe­ri­ence in mo­bile tech­nol­ogy that we had gained through Sin­gu­laris.” And it was dur­ing these so­journs that their out­look un­der­went a sig­nif­i­cant change. While prior to launch­ing Sin­gu­laris, they had be­lieved that lost phones rep­re­sented a gap in the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in­dus­try, they now had be­fore them an is­sue that was much larger than mo­bile theft. Saraogi says, “Peo­ple in these ru­ral ar­eas were un­able to send SMSes via their mo­bile phones, not just for lack of English lit­er­acy, but be­cause they had no ba­sic tech­ni­cal skills. Mak­ing missed calls with the hope of re­ceiv­ing a call­back in re­sponse was also the norm.” Af­ter iden­ti­fy­ing the ar­eas with the po­ten­tial for tech­no­log­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion, Saraogi and Sachdev em­barked on a jour­ney that would see them use mo­bile de­vices with a ru­ral fo­cus.

The ini­tial years

Uniphore was in­cu­bated at RTBI. Re­call­ing the days when they were get­ting

things off the ground, Saraogi says, “We started off in a lab at IIT-Madras, and built a team of five in the first year.” The first few years were spent on R & D, tech val­i­da­tion, and in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty (IP) cre­ation, which helped the com­pany to get its first set of in­vestors. And since the road ahead was fraught with chal­lenges, some time and ef­fort also went to­wards iden­ti­fy­ing tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lems, build­ing and val­i­dat­ing a busi­ness model and get­ting cus­tomers to sign up.

A ma­jor trans­for­ma­tion

Over the next few years, Uniphore sold its voice-based soft­ware as a be­spoke so­lu­tion to en­ter­prises. The first in­flec­tion point came in 2014, when Uniphore, with the help of early in­vest­ments, switched gears to be­come a prod­ucts com­pany. Its flag­ship prod­uct was ‘auMina’, a speech an­a­lyt­ics so­lu­tion that could be used in ar­eas where it is dif­fi­cult to get the work done with­out tech­nol­ogy—ba­si­cally, call cen­tres that han­dle thou­sands of calls. Ac­cord­ing to Saraogi, auMina lis­tens to calls in real time, con­verts speech to text, de­tects hu­man emo­tions and voice mod­u­la­tions; and since it re­ceives all the calls, can con­duct big data an­a­lyt­ics (the process of ex­am­in­ing large and var­ied amounts of data), thus help­ing call cen­tre op­er­a­tors to iden­tify trends. An­other prod­uct that was in­tro­duced was ‘akeira’, a vir­tual as­sis­tant so­lu­tion that al­lows call­ers to ask ques­tions in their own lan­guage and get the an­swer. Saraogi says, “We wanted to au­to­mate some­thing that was al­ready tak­ing place—calls to a call cen­tre, that need not al­ways go to a hu­man agent.” The third area of fo­cus for Uniphore was to re­duce pos­si­bil­i­ties of hu­man er­ror. Saraogi says, “This is why we in­tro­duced voice bio­met­rics in the form of ‘amVoice’.” It en­sures user au­then­ti­ca­tion by us­ing a per­son’s unique voice­print.

Go­ing beyond In­dia

The next in­flec­tion point came in 2015, when the suc­cess­ful con­ver­sion of its of­fer­ings into prod­ucts helped Uniphore raise Se­ries A fund­ing from in­vestors. The new in­vestors asked Uniphore to go global and also trans­form it­self from a li­cence fee­based in­come model to a SaaS (soft­war­eas-a-ser­vice)-based sub­scrip­tion fee model. Saraogi says, “We started ex­pand­ing to Asia and North Amer­ica, and also con­verted our en­tire of­fer­ing to SaaS.” To sup­port the com­pany’s ex­pan­sion plans in Asia, Saraogi, with his fam­ily, shifted base to Singapore. Switch­ing to a SaaS-based model also made it eas­ier for Uniphore to raise Se­ries B round of fund­ing in 2017.

The com­pany to­day

Recog­nised as the ‘10th Fastest Grow­ing Tech­nol­ogy Com­pany in In­dia’ by Deloitte Tech­nol­ogy Fast 50 In­dia in 2015, Uniphore en­ables two lakh hours of voice data ev­ery day, serv­ing more than four mil­lion end-users. It has worked with over 70 en­ter­prise cus­tomers across var­i­ous sec­tors such as banking, fi­nan­cial ser­vices and in­surance (BFSI), fast-mov­ing con­sumer goods (FMCG), re­tail and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. Proud of the fact that Uniphore is one of the few In­dian en­ter­prises op­er­at­ing in the SaaS ecosys­tem glob­ally, Saraogi re­veals, “Ac­cord­ing to some re­ports, the mar­ket size for our prod­ucts is more than USD 20 bil­lion.”

Uniphore, with its ded­i­ca­tion to launch com­pet­i­tive prod­ucts that solve real-world tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lems, seems well­po­si­tioned to tap this op­por­tu­nity.

Left: A ban­ner on Uniphore's web­site fea­tur­ing ‘auMina’, the com­pany's flag­ship prod­uct

Be­low: Ravi Saraogi with fam­ily (l-r) Mira Saraogi (mother), Nath­mal Saraogi (fa­ther), Ayaan Saraogi (son), Ravi Saraogi and Nidhi Saraogi (wife)

Top right: Uniphore Soft­ware Sys­tems' Chennai of­fice

Top left: Umesh Sachdev and Ravi Saraogi af­ter Uniphore Soft­ware Sys­tems was named the over­all win­ner of 'col­lab', the in­au­gu­ral cor­po­rate start-up en­gage­ment pro­gramme launched by Lu­menLab, MetLife Asia's Singapore-based in­no­va­tion cen­tre

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