Business Technology

Saturday 27 May 2017

Voice-recognition startup Soapbox Labs that helps child literacy raises €1.2m

Dr Patrica Scanlan, founder of Soapbox Labs, said 'the timing is right' for expansion
Dr Patrica Scanlan, founder of Soapbox Labs, said 'the timing is right' for expansion
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

A Dublin-based voice-recognition company that helps child literacy has raised €1.2m to help continue its expansion.

Soapbox Labs, set up by Dr Patricia Scanlon, uses deep neural net speech recognition technology to analyse children's speech in noisy 'real world' environments such as kitchens and cafés.

This can then be used by other applications from firms like publishers or gaming companies for their educational or commercial purposes.

"The timing is right to raise money now," said Dr Scanlon. "We're currently licensing the technology to educational publishers. We expect to see licensing deals in place this year."

The technology is aimed at children between the ages of four and 10.

"We present text to children and rate how they read it," said Dr Scanlon. "Right now, we've done ages four up to seven and are tackling the eight-to-10 age category."

She said that the key difference between Soapbox Labs and other speech analysis products was in the data that the Dublin company has collected.

"Without question, our edge is in the data. We have 600,000 audio samples from 15,000 children in 125 countries. Mostly they were collected using cheap mobile phones, so they're properly tested in real world conditions."

The company collected the data by releasing apps with games or puzzle and collecting the audio samples that were part of those games.

With the addition of new machine-learning technology, she and her team of seven people use that data to analyse attempts by children to speak.

"Lots of people have tried this before but they were doing it with limited, lab-environment data," she said.

"Kids now are on cheap tablets or phones. They're in a noisy kitchen or the back of a car. Many systems couldn't deal with the background noise so accuracy was low."

The company's backers in the current funding round include Elkstone, Astia Angels and Enterprise Ireland.

It recently hired Qiru Zhou, the former chief R&D scientist at US-based speech recognition company iSpeech.

SoapBox Labs currently has eight staff in Ireland and the US. Dr Scanlon said that she plans to double its headcount within 12 months.

Voice-recognition technology is one of the strongest-emerging areas in the IT industry so far this year. Systems developed by Amazon, Apple and Google are starting to be integrated in everyday products and systems, such as cars and home appliances.

Dr Scanlon said that she got the idea to develop the technology while watching her daughter interact with mobile devices. She said that apps for children often lack accurate speech-recognition capabilities.

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