Startup of the Month: In 2015 the MEDICA App COMPETITION was scouting for successful mobile health startups for the fourth time. Ten early-stage startups presented their digital health apps on stage at the worlds biggest medical trade fair in Dusseldorf. At the end 2016 the winner — Israeli startup VoiceItt — announced another big milestone in their young company history: The international BIRD Foundation granted $900,000 to the development of VoiceItts mobile voice- and voice-pattern recognition software for people with disabilities. VoiceItt co-founder Danny Weissberg shared his view on their achievements after winning MEDICA App COMPETITION in 2015:
Danny, for the ones that do not know: Can you describe in a few sentences what the VoiceItt team is working on?
Danny: Voiceitt is developing an innovative speech recognition technology called Talkitt. In future, it translates non-standard speech patterns into clear speech in real time, enabling people with speech impairments to communicate spontaneously and naturally using their own voices. The solution is language-independent and can be easily integrated into existing operating systems and devices allowing speech recognition truly accessible to everyone.
You started in 2012, what happened since then?
Danny: A lot! Currently we are conducting Beta testing on dozens of potential users that show very promising results, planning to do pilot testing with Hospitals, e.g. UHealth and BCH. We will release the first product in the mid-2017. It was not an easy journey. But we were also extremely lucky to get tremendous positive feedback and could secure the necessary funding to develop such a demanding technology. To date we have raised more than $2.5M — most recently we won a grant from the Bird Foundation and a grant of 50,000 Euro from H2020 SME Instrument, Phase 1.
You have won more than $2.5; in grants and competitions without giving up much equity — much more than many other startups get from investors after years of hard work. What is your magic recipe?
Danny: We won $2M in grants but also gave up equity for $500K of Angel investments. This is no magic; it is a deliberate strategy. Developing a solution for people with disabilities is the most amazing and rewarding challenge — being able to dramatically improve and impact the lives of millions while building a very profitable business while developing cutting edge technologies. However, many investors don’t want to invest in what they see as a “Niche market”. Because of that from Day #1 on I knew we had to be creative in fundraising and put the effort more on grants\competitions were we have an advantage telling a powerful and emotional story versus private investors where we have a disadvantage of a niche market.
“We won $2M in grants but also gave up equity for $500K of Angel investments. This is no magic; it is a deliberate strategy.”
Just a few tips for fellow entrepreneurs that consider applying for grants: How long does it usually take to apply for grants?
Danny: It varies. Some are just simple web forms that takes an hour and some are long applications and processes that take’s week of work and the process make take up to a year! This is why you need to choose the “lowest hanging fruits”, where you effort is most likely to be fruitful and remember that with grants the processes are very long so make sure you have enough run rate.
Is there a complete list of competitions and grants other founders could check out?
Danny: Unfortunately, there isn’t! It also all depends on the area you are active in.
Israel is said to be the Startup Nation and many interesting digital health startups emerge from your small country. At VoiceItt, many of your investors have Israeli roots too. It looks like there is a special glue that hold together Israeli founders?
Danny: The Startup Nation has very good reputation of success and it helps getting funding from investors overseas. In our case, some investors are personally connected to the mission because they or one of their family members have speech disabilities.
You also launched your business for personal reasons?
Danny: Yes, when my grandmother had a stroke and lost her voice, it made me realize how hard it is for a person to lose this basic ability to communicate. Our app Talkitt will connect people, who have speech disabilities to the ever more voice-enabled world.
I am sure, speech recognition is going to be dominant in our life. This is how we are going to communicate not only among ourselves but with machines, computers, cars, smart homes and this is why all major companies invest in it — be it Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, IBM or Google. However, none of those companies develop a solution for people with speech disabilities.
2017 just started, what are you up to?
Danny: In 2016 we finally started Beta Testing which helps our R&D to focus on improving the technology in real-life conditions and getting the application closer to release. In 2017, we will continue pilot tests with leading hospitals to launch Talkitt worldwide — and at a very high success rate. In the last years we worked really hard to develop a product that is suitable for any kind of speech impairment. Nothing is more frustrating for people with speech issues than crushing their hopes of finally being able to communicate using their own voice by delivering a mobile app that is not tested enough. Pilot testing in Barcelona, the UK, The USA and of course your tech development in Israel. In 2016, you also attended Mobile World Congress as prize from MEDICA App COMPETITION and at Mobile World Congress you won tickets for TechCrunch Disrupt New York. Sounds like you travel a lot.
How do you cope with “living on the fast lane” all the time?
Danny: I don’t even have time to look back on how many miles I and the team travelled in 2016 — but it has been A LOT! The tough thing is not so much the traveling but the Jet-leg when traveling over the ocean.
It is said that 9 out of 10 startups struggle and die. You fought this cycle successfully so far. What advice can you give other founders that are active globally like you?
“Focus on the product development, be creative in fund sources.”
Danny, thanks for the interview and good luck in 2017!