Sara A Smolley: Making Voice Tech Accessible To Those Who Need It Most
Hi friends, it’s Spiffy, back again on Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making the world a more equitable place! Today I’m excited to cruise around with Sara Smolley, co-founder and Vice President of Strategic Partnerships of Voiceitt, who is building voice-driven technologies with widespread accessibility. Are you ready to be inspired?
Spiffy: It’s wonderful to meet you, Sara. I’m curious about the challenges Voiceitt is addressing. What can you tell me?
Sara: It’s great to meet you too, Spiffy, thanks for having me! To answer your question, voice-driven technologies are increasingly mainstream. For most of us, voice-activation can be convenient and fun. But for millions of people with motor-control challenges and speech disabilities due to developmental disorders, degenerative disease, stroke, and brain injury, the ability to communicate and be understood, to navigate the environment and control devices by voice can be life changing. Many who can potentially benefit from a “voice first” world cannot access these technologies because along with motor control challenges, they do not have standard speech patterns. Standard speech recognition isn’t designed to work for impaired speech (“dysarthria”). Voiceitt’s mission and vision is to make voice technology accessible to everyone.
Spiffy: What motivated you to do it?
Sara: Our founders were foremost motivated by personal experiences. Founder and CEO Danny's family member had a stroke while co-founder Sara's grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 40, affecting her motor capabilities, affecting her speech, and making it challenging to build a relationship with her grandchildren. This is a day-to-day reality for millions around the world with disabilities correlated with a variety of underlying medical conditions and disorders affecting speech. There is also no better time in human history to be involved in speech recognition—when voice is increasingly the principal way we interact with our technologies. Our vision is to ensure these new technologies are accessible to those who need it most.
Spiffy: Could you elaborate on how Voiceitt is putting this vision for a more equitable world into motion?
Sara: Voiceitt's speech recognition technology is designed to recognize and translate non-standard speech patterns. Its first product is a mobile application that translates unintelligible speech in real time, thus enabling users with speech impairments, or dysarthria, to communicate and be understood by voice. Voiceitt also supports voice commands for environmental control through integration with voice assistants, enabling the person with speech and motor impairments to perform basic tasks independently. During Covid-19, Voiceitt has improved safety and quality of life for vulnerable and underserved populations, including children and adults with complex needs. Here’s a brief tech demo of the same.
Spiffy: Wow, that’s super, Sara! Tell me about a recent initiative by Voiceitt, and the impact that it makes.
Sara: A September 2021 New York Times op-ed describes our recent milestones through integration with Alexa and the ongoing impact from the launch of our first product. It also clearly presents Voiceitt's positioning within voice tech and accessibility. Impact is further demonstrated by our collaborators at ALYN Hospital, a prominent rehabilitation children's hospital in Israel which recently completed a pilot program with individuals with severe speech and motor disabilities in Hebrew and Arabic. The following video clip highlights the impact for these patients, their caregivers, and the clinical professionals.
Spiffy: Fantastic! Though I’m sure you’ve faced your share of challenges in the process. Can you share an experience of when the company faced failure but didn’t give up? What would you say you learned from it?
Sara: Building a startup combining sophisticated technology and impact poses particular challenges in raising traditional funds. Facing failure, we took a creative approach to fundraising by combining government grants, corporate cash prize competitions and traditional investment—$5 million in grants and competitions and $17 million altogether in funding (our investors include Microsoft's M12, Amazon Alexa Fund, Connecticut Innovations, and AARP). All of this supported the development of our automatic speech recognition and machine learning technology. It also enabled us to launch our first product and set a foundation for sustainability and, most importantly, for a long-term impact for people with disabilities around the world.
Spiffy: What is something you've unexpectedly learned from someone recently? I believe you can learn from anyone—kids, peers, or even pets!
Sara: “Nothing for us, without us." Following this mantra of the disabilities community, we learn constantly from our users, and those who care for and about them. Voiceitt deeply engages with people with disabilities in its design and development processes. We have undertaken in-person interviews, online surveys, and hundreds of conversations with therapists, caregivers, physicians, and persons with disabilities. Voiceitt's quality assurance engineer has cerebral palsy and is deeply involved in the product's design and development. Early on, the company engaged its international partners to obtain crucial input, such as AARP (USA), EasterSeals (USA), Alyn (Israel), and Karten (UK) to ensure its voice-based AI is designed for anyone, and everyone.
Spiffy: Before I let you get back to the great work you’re doing, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Sara: Voiceitt's tech is ready for seamless integration with existing technologies and products. The following recent media mentions in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal describe our positioning within the voice tech space and our vision for the industry’s future.
Spiffy: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Sara, it’s been an honor!
Sara is the co-founder at Voiceitt, an AI/ML (artificial intelligence and machine learning) startup that has developed automatic speech recognition to help people with severe disabilities live more independently. Having grown up in South Florida, she moved to Israel after spending five years in Asia at a biotech startup in Hong Kong, and in Seoul, South Korea, where she completed a global MBA. Sara holds an economics degree from Barnard College at Columbia University. She now lives in between Tel Aviv and Florida. (First published on the Ladderworks website on November 3, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.