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Podcast

AI Advancements for Supporting Speech Disabilities with Voiceitt’s Sara Smolley

Voiceitt’s Sara Smolley shares AI technology’s implications for older adults and people with disabilities; plus business tips for founders
June 2024

About the Episode

AI is helping older adults and people with disabilities live independent lives by using their voices. In this podcast, Co-Founder & Vice President of Strategic Partnerships of Voiceitt, Sara Smolley, describes her startup’s Voice AI speech recognition solution for people with non-standard speech. In conversation with Tanya Perkins, Chief Operating Officer of Tembo Health, Sara shares the emotional stories that inspired her to create the Voiceitt AI technology. She also shares advice for other founders; such as the importance of choosing the right partners and the necessity to adapt your role as your company grows. Sara closes with advice for startups looking to network, and emphasizes the impact of applying to AgeTech Collaborative’s pitch events.

 

Transcript

Tanya Perkins, Host:      Welcome to AgeTech Talks, conversations about AgeTech, powered by AgeTech Collaborative from AARP leading a global mission to drive innovation at the nexus of longevity and technology. You are tuning in to a series of discussions recorded live at CES 2024 that highlight the dynamic startup founders who are making aging easier for everyone by pioneering innovative AgeTech solutions. In conversation with fellow startup founders, Kyle Rand and Tanya Perkins, each episode invites an AgeTech Collaborative startup founder to discuss their journey and share the invaluable lessons they’ve learned along the way. Today we’re thrilled to have Sara Smolley, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and Co-founder of Voiceitt to share their story. Hey, how are you doing?

Sara Smolley:    Doing really good. So excited to be here. I am Sara Smolley, one of the co-founders at Voiceitt. We have built voice AI speech recognition for people with non-standard speech. Our focus is really a mission to help people with disabilities live more connected, independent lives by using their voices.

Tanya:              What should people know about Sara? What makes Sara tick?

Sara:                 As a startup founder, we wake up in the morning and consider right away our users our mission. What are we doing today to help people with disabilities live better? Not just to be more independent, not just to be able to communicate, but also to enjoy the best of technologies just like everyone else. And so that’s what drives us. And as founders, there’s so much smoke, there’s so much noise, and sometimes it’s hard to maintain that focus and to keep the energy that comes from that mission. So that’s who I am, that’s who we are as founders and our core team as well. I really have to say that one of our greatest joys and achievements is building a team that is striving to build really sophisticated technology. So what we’re building and what we’ll talk about and describe is it’s a really hard problem to solve. Speech recognition is one of the most challenging technology challenges, but also really cares about the mission. And so together with our team and the community that we’re building, it’s just as much we’re building a community as well as a technology. And so that’s really who we are at the end of the day.

Tanya:              Let’s get in the origin story. Can you tell us how did the company start? How did you get involved and why are you putting so much of your energy and your time into something like this?

Sara:                 Thanks for asking it that way, because it is very, very hard for me now. It’s been about seven years. The company has been around for more than 10 years now. But Voiceitt started from personal experiences in my family. It was my grandmother diagnosed early onset Parkinson’s disease. She was 40 years old when she was diagnosed. So by the time that I was born, she had lost most of her motor capabilities, but more than anything, it was her speech that was impacted. So even as a young child, I could feel her frustration because it was so difficult for her to communicate even basic tasks. I’m thirsty, it’s cold, I love you. And that affected her ability to build a relationship with my brothers and with me. In the case of our founder, Danny, his family member had a stroke. So sort of an opposite situation, whereas I never knew my grandmother for Danny.

Sara:                 He was so close with his family member and suddenly because of the stroke couldn’t communicate with her and she couldn’t be understood. So it was our personal experiences and our families that inspired us to build a technology that became Voiceitt that can help the person with unintelligible speech because of an underlying medical condition, disease disorder or aging condition affecting speech to communicate with other people. And what we’ve since discovered is it’s a very diverse community. So in my case, it was degenerative disease in our family, Danny was stroke, but many other situations from brain injury to developmental disorders and disabilities like cerebral palsy, certain forms of autism and down syndrome as well as deaf individuals with non-standard speech. And so we’ve been learning from our community in the ways that voice ai, when it’s accessible through our technology, can really change their lives.

Tanya:              How did you get started? How did you get introduced to the idea of doing this and meeting your teammates?

Sara:                 So my first exposure to startup land was actually in Hong Kong. I was with a biotech startup developing antiviral, antibacterial face masks, and then I spent time in Korea. But I met Danny when I came over to Israel, new Year’s Eve 2016. And I was looking for an intersection of sophisticated technology, healthcare and impact. And it’s pretty fair to say that Voiceitt and Danny Weisberg, who I had the privilege to meet and founder of Voiceitt, really embodies those three things, impact healthcare and deep technology. And from there we have a third co-founder, Stas Tiomkin, who is the brains behind the technology. He’s the one that told Danny and me, this is not science fiction. We can do this. This is something that can be built. And here we are. And actually, in this CES 2024 is when we’re really talking to customers, talking to users, and demonstrating now together with AARP that what was science fiction just a few years ago is now really making a big impact. But it’s been a journey to get here. And so still challenges ahead as you know, but we made it here.

Tanya:              You brought up something that’s really cool, which is that journey about how to become a founder. A lot of folks think that to be a founder means that you had to be on a hike or doing something where an idea came to you out of the blue and it’s solely your idea and you need to be the one to know how to build the technology and do all the things. Whereas what I’m really hearing from your experience is that you had three individuals who had their respective experiences and to some extent came into the business at different points coming together and saying, you know what? We’re going to do this. We’re going to take that to the next level. Any words of advice for anyone out there who is thinking about joining a team as a founder, especially if anyone’s already been working on the concept ahead of when they’re joining?

Sara:                 So we already talked about building a team, founding team and a core team is probably the most important decisions and process really, that a founder can make and do. But I want to talk about what’s been personally really meaningful and important to me, which is the collaboration between startups and other types of organizations. In our case, for Voiceitt, what has been more pivotal than anything else is focusing on what are we building, but then who are the people that we can work with and partner with that can help us achieve our goals and our mission? So in our case, that means nonprofits, universities, and academic institutions. It means government entities and then of course corporate. So right now we are working with some of the biggest technology companies in the world. Amazon and Microsoft are investors in our company as well as Cisco. We announced together with AARP at a previous CES, an integration with Amazon Alexa.

Sara:                 This year we’re announcing here at CES an integration with WebEx, the major collaboration video conferencing platform. But these kind of corporate collaborations are pivotal to us because for many kind of obvious reasons. When you work with major corporations and organizations, you can get the reach out there just like what we’re doing together here with AARP, but also the individuals within those institutions. And that’s really what I found personally meaningful is that there’s the expertise, there’s the knowledge, the networks of those humans within the major tech companies or the major organizations. And when you connect on the mission level, there’s really so much you can do to navigate the hallways of those major institutions and then to ultimately get the product in the market and reach users through those collaborations. So that’s really what I would suggest to potential founders. Building a company is building relationships, and it can come from so many different directions and along multiple dimensions.

Tanya:              How did you and your founders decide these are the roles that we have today? And then additionally, as you’re hiring employees, these are the roles that we’re going to have or how our roles are going to evolve.

Sara:                 It depends on the stage of the company. From a very early stage, everyone’s pretty much touching everything. You lean into your strengths, maybe previous job titles that you’ve had, which really honestly just don’t mean that much when you’re starting out. And a CTO in a startup could literally mean you’re speaking to every single customer, every single user, just like any early stage role. But as we grow, we become more specialized. And I’ll answer this from a very personal level for my journey. My background is in startup land, and I’ve been in startups for now as long as I can pretty much remember, corporate life seems very distant to me and all of what that means around titles. Now, as our company grows and specific specialized roles are becoming more meaningful and frankly significant and important, we as founders need to go through a process of redefining ourselves and figuring out, okay, what is it that I’m bringing to the table that is more important than all the other things that I’m doing? And how can I grow with this skillset or this passion to best contribute to a company that is growing from an infant to an adolescent and very soon to a mature adult where each section needs to be able to work harmoniously together but also independently. So it’s a process and I’m trying to enjoy that journey of self-understanding and learn along the way as we build our team.

Tanya:              What was the first moment that you realized we’re doing this thing and now I’m a founder? What did it feel like? What did that look like?

Sara:                 I’m not sure I even got into that moment yet, I have to say, because it’s really an evolution to even define yourself that way or to self-identify that way. For years we’d kind of be like we’re trying to build something together, but not necessarily for me anyway, to be able to put that title on it and give it all the significance that comes with it. If I were to choose a moment, it would be when we were going to receive Microsoft’s investment. Pretty soon after that, we had the opportunity to meet Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft in their campus in Seattle, and we presented our technology to their leadership team facilitated by Microsoft M 12, their venture capital fund that has invested in Voiceitt. And towards the end, we shook hands with Satya Nadella, who by the way has a personal connection to what we’re building. He has a child with special needs who tragically passed away last year, but has taken the leadership really, I would say in the industry of ensuring that the newest technologies are accessible and inclusive to, as they would say, everyone on this planet really AI and tech for good.

Sara:                 But in that moment of meeting one of the business leaders that I most admire, I suddenly realized that, hey, this is going to happen. We have the support from people who really care about what we care about and care about building our communities and strengthening them through technologies. It was the beginning of a relationship with Microsoft. And since then with other major technology companies and organizations, we’ve been privileged because our space within accessibility within AI for Good is extremely collaborative. And voice AI is essentially touching every way that we interface with technologies and platforms. So we had the opportunity now to vastly build the network of support within Voiceitt and our group of partnerships that could be quite unique because we’re working with companies that are frankly competitors with each other, but have kind of joined us with the understanding that voice technology and conversational AI and everything that means around it should be available to any customer, any individual that can benefit from it. So we’ve been lucky for that. And both from the top leadership and then from all different people within those companies and organizations,

Tanya:              What would your advice be to anyone building a technology or a service that they think might be useful to a corporate, but don’t know how to start or don’t know how to do it in a way that again, is going to be beneficial for both sides?

Sara:                 The companies are made of individuals of humans and humans are motivated by a personal connection. It doesn’t matter what company you’re working for, even what your job title is, what you do your day to day. At the end of the day, we’re driven by the things that matter to us and personal connection, finding people within the organization that care about the things that you care about, the population that you’re serving, find those people and they can help you navigate the hallways, the complex virtual hallways of whatever organization you’re trying to gain inroads into.

Tanya:              Anything know now that you wish you knew either before you started doing Voiceittt or just before you started in startups?

Sara:                 In the same theme of the relationships, what I wish I had understood is the long-term view of connections of what we in marketing and business development might call leads or contacts. I wish I had understood the value of real relationships in the business and tech world for the long-term. So people that you bump into the hallway and have a conversation with or at a networking event, can these be meaningful conversations? People very rarely want to be sold a product, especially a product they’ve never heard of or from a startup they’ve never heard of. But they do want to build a relationship. They do want to learn something new or be part of a community that again, cares about the things that they care about. So I wish I had really understood that I was for the longest time, really just scrambling to sell to investors, sell to partners, sell to our potential customers and end users. And I’ve only recently began to understand that that’s just so much not what it’s about, especially when we’re trying to build something from nothing. Right? And that’s what startups are at the end of the day. And the only way to do that is with people who care.

Tanya:              How are you leveling up in order to be able to make those connections and focus in on people? Are there any resources that you’re using or techniques that you’re using?

Sara:                 Asking questions of people I meet and learning really how they do it. Something I’ve been recently very interested in is learning about people that I admire, their backgrounds, memoirs or biographies of successful tech people, but also from all backgrounds and understanding how people got from point A to point B. And the best way really to do that is to ask people directly. So it doesn’t have to be like Elon Musk, you can read his biography, but I think the people that we talk to in networking events and points of contact, asking them those questions, caring about their background as much as who they are now and what are they doing now. And so many times there’s so much more than what is happening right here right now and what can you do for me and what can I do for you?

Tanya:              So as mentioned, we are at the AgeTech Collaborative Pavilion by AARP at CES. And so I’d be remiss if I wrap this up without asking you if you had any pieces of advice to drop on people who either are thinking about building a- or are building a business that’s focused in on the second half of one century or are thinking about maybe even applying to the AgeTech Collaborative. Is there anything out there that little knowledge that you want to drop on people?

Sara:                 Talk to the folks here at AARP when they say they want to help. They really do. And if they can’t, they will at least try to find someone who will. We have personally just seen that in action to see every single person on our team really wanting to not just talk about innovation, but be part of innovation journeys by building this community of portfolio companies and startups. So I’m grateful to be able to be here and I encourage anyone listening to reach out.

Tanya:              I’m definitely going to second, third, and fourth, that statement. Nevertheless, we’re going to wrap that up here. Again, this is Tanya Perkins podcasting along with Sara from Voiceitt, and we are sitting at the AgeTech Collaborative from AARP Pavilion and we are live from CES. And we’ll be speaking with you guys soon on the next one. Thanks. Thanks for listening to AgeTech Talks from AgeTech Collaborative from AARP. You can learn more about today’s guests and all of the innovative startups in the AgeTech Collaborative by visiting the startup directory on agetechcollaborative.org.