The Coronavirus started a revolution in education, brought schools and institutions online and increased the demand for e-learning apps.
One of them is ELSA, an artificial intelligence (AI) language platform designed to help non-native English learners improve their language and pronunciation through short, app-based lessons.
Under the pandemic, the Google supported company – which uses machine learning to train specifically spoken English – has reached around 11 million users and entered new markets as international lockdowns created a new need for technology-based learning solutions.
When the Vietnamese entrepreneur Vu Van founded the company in 2015, it was out of a completely different necessity.
Van still remembers how she tried to find her voice.
It was a problem their non-native counterparts shared. Mispronunciation concerns held them back in their Stanford MBA class and later in business consulting, and often resulted in being overlooked or Worse, said Van suspiciously.
And if it was a problem for them, it was a problem for many others too. About that 1.5 billion English speakers worldwide appreciates the World Economic Forum over 1 billion are not indigenous or learn English as a second language.
So Van decided to do something about it and come up with a technology-enabled tool that could accurately identify users’ broken English and provide easy-to-follow solutions at a fraction of the cost of a tutor.
“To achieve a perfect American or British accent is very difficult. But speaking confidently and fluently so others can understand you can be fixed. And if that is of great benefit, why not?” she said CNBC do it.
With no AI or machine learning experience of her own, Van knew that her work was cut out to make her vision a reality.
After quitting her consulting job, she spent the next six months looking for a technical co-founder and speaking to “basically every AI speech recognition professional in the Bay Area” to gauge her interest and gain her insights.
“My approach was very simple: I only have to talk to five people a day. I don’t care who they are as long as I can get connections, and then those five people will introduce me to another five people,” she said.
Van’s search eventually led her to Germany, where she hosted the world’s largest conference for speech recognition technology after a technical professor advised her, “If you can’t find anyone there, you might as well close the company.”
There, among 3,000 experts, Van met Xavier Anguera, a top scientist who, as she put it, “had been in research for far too long and was itching for these effects”.
Within weeks, he agreed to join her, leave his family temporarily in Portugal and move to Van’s “tiny” apartment in San Francisco to stress test the partnership and develop their idea.
It was a process that would require total honesty, with “all of the toughest conversations going on early on,” admitted Van, who, with the help of her co-founder, had put together a checklist of questions, like negotiating salaries and shares.
“We said if we don’t kill each other by the end of three months, we might be fine,” she recalled.
But the high stakes approach has paid off. With Anguera as co-founder and chief technology officer, the couple immediately went to work building a prototype. Input of data from non-English native speakers and comparison with data from American Standard English.
For Van, this meant getting a foothold in her native Vietnam to train AI against a wide range of non-English speakers, from bus drivers to boardroom executives.
The real turning point, however, came a few months later when ELSA South won through Southwest’s 2016 Starting ContestThis results in the app going viral, amassing 30,000 users within 24 hours, and giving the team access to user data from around the world.
“The goal in the beginning was to collect data. The faster we get there, the faster we can train our AI,” said Van.
The wheels were set in motion with an international dataset teaching the technology on a range of non-English accents from India to Spain.
Shortly thereafter, after relying on their own savings for around six months, Van and Anguera secured an initial seed capital investment to grow the business. By the beginning of 2018, ELSA secured itself with a growing team and several million users in 100 countries Financing of $ 3.2 million, including Monk’s Hill Ventures, a Southeast Asian venture capital fund.
“ELSA was one of our first investments in Vietnam where we took great inspiration from Vu and Xavier’s beliefs in solving a real problem for over 1.5 billion English learners,” said Peng T. Ong, co-founder and managing partner of Monk’s Hill Ventures emailed CNBC Make It.
That vote of confidence was bolstered in 2019 when support from Google’s AI-focused Gradient Ventures increased total funding to more than $ 12 million and granted ELSA access to Google’s technical team to help build the backend infrastructure.
The surge came just months before the coronavirus pandemic turned education upside down and accelerated the growth of online tools.
ELSA – which operates a freemium model that gives users full access to over 1,000 courses for around $ 3 to $ 6 a month, depending on the package – has seen user numbers grow three to four times each month since Van.
This growth is not only due to the typical users of ELSA, but also to schools and companies adapting to new teaching methods. The company has now partnered with dozens of schools and companies in Vietnam and India, as well as Brazil and Ukraine, to enter the business-to-business (B2B) market.
“Covid really opened up a segment that is new to us,” said Van. “There is a paradigm shift among parents that there is another way of learning. Instead of always having to send their children to a language learning center or school, they can rely on technology. We take advantage of this.”
As the pandemic progresses, this demand is likely to continue. “In today’s world, fluent English is seen as an asset to greater business opportunity, and we expect edutech in Southeast Asia – accelerated in part by the pandemic – to continue to grow and more entrepreneurs to bring educational innovation through technology,” Ong said.
Van said more fundraisers are “on the horizon” soon as the company expands its existing teams in San Francisco, Vietnam, India and Japan while targeting new markets like Brazil and South Korea.
The new mom also said ELSA is exploring other product innovations such as continuous monitoring that would allow the app to provide feedback reports based on conversations held during the day. Such additions would have to correspond exactly to the data protection regulations.
“2020 was a crazy year but I think we did well and are looking forward to what comes in 2021,” she said.
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