Lessons from an Innovative Startup

Colloquium in Advanced Management

Left to right: Senior Associate Dean David Bach, Sara Smolley, and Danny Weissberg

By Michael Helfenberger MAM '16

Master of Advanced Management students attend a weekly Advanced Management Colloquium that offers a platform to actively engage in discussions with keynote speakers who have been successful in their respective fields. One recent colloquium featured two speakers working in an innovative space that crosses sectors and speaks to Yale SOM’s mission of educating leaders for business and society. 

At the colloquium on April 12, Danny Weissberg, cofounder and CEO of Voiceitt, as well as Sara Smolley, head of business development North America for the company, discussed the startup’s state-of-the-art product, Talkitt, which is now in advanced stages of development, and that translates unintelligible speech into clear speech in real time, allowing children and adults with speech impairments to communicate using their own voices. By giving people with speech difficulties their voices back, Voiceitt fosters independence, empowerment, and social inclusion among disabled populations who currently depend on bulky, slow, and oftentimes non-existent solutions for this vital human need.

Talkitt utilizes an innovative voice-recognition technology for non-standard speakers that follows pattern-matching principles, but is personalized for each client. Unlike traditional devices such as head- and eye-tracked devices, which require the user to input their conversation without utilizing their own voice, Talkitt recognizes each user’s personal speech patterns to allow clients to speak and have their words “translated” immediately into a verbal output. This allows their communication to be more immediate and functional in many ways that traditional methods cannot allow, such as phone conversations and voice-activated technologies. The more it is used, the more the program improves its translation of a client’s speech. Each user creates a customized “dictionary” of words, with an interpretation accuracy exceeding 90%. 

The creation of Voiceitt was motivated by Weissberg’s personal experience when a family member lost the ability to communicate by speaking. Frustrated by the lack of options available to help, Weissberg, a computer engineer and MBA from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, decided to launch his own venture in 2012 “to give everybody a voice.” Weissberg and Smolley, a Columbia University graduate holding an MBA from Yonsei University in Korea, and their team of 10 highly motivated Voiceitt employees conducted research that revealed that as much as 1.5% of the world’s population has some sort of speech disability resulting from either traumatic brain injuries, ALS, Parkinson’s, or other accidents and illnesses. With a subscription fee of approximately $20 per month, Talkitt costs a fraction of the cost of other augmentative and alternative communication devices, which are unable to offer comparable benefits and are oftentimes not even supported by insurance carriers around the world.

Established as a mission-oriented B-Corp in the U.S., Voiceitt is the recipient of a $500,000 award, which is being used to develop an enhanced solution with statistical pattern-matching capabilities. While currently addressing its product B2C, the team is considering B2B distribution channels and government-directed approaches. Furthermore, they are discussing their product with multinationals such as IBM, Philips, and Verizon.

Weissberg also discussed the challenges of helming a startup. “Being an entrepreneur also means going through tough times,” he said. Despite the several prizes the company has already won, funding remains one of the constant challenges in his startup. Current expenses are financed through government grants and several crowdfunding campaigns, despite venture capitalist offers that are on the table. “If you are convinced of your business, you want to control ownership,” he said.

About the Event

The Colloquium in Advanced Management welcomes Danny Weissberg, cofounder and CEO, and Sara Smolley, head of business development North America, of VoiceItt. The Master of Advanced Management colloquiua convene scholars and industry leaders to share their experiences with MAM students.