ELSA raises $3.2M for its A.I.-powered English pronunciation assistant

ELSA, an app whose name stands for “English Language Speech Assistant”( and not the popular Disney character !), has raised $3.2 million for its A.I.-assisted language learning platform that teaches people how to speak English. Unlike other courses that focus mainly on teaching grammar and vocabulary, ELSA utilizes artificial intelligence and speech recognition technology to assistance language learners with their pronunciation.

The $3.2 million pre-A round of funding was led by Monk’s Hill Ventures, a firm that invests in post-seed stage startups in Southeast Asia. Monk’s Hill founder and partner, Peng T. Ong, is joining ELSA’s board.

The San Francisco-based startup was originally founded in 2015 by Stanford grad Vu Van, ELSA CEO, and Dr. Xavier Anguera, whose background is in speech recognition and A.I. technologies. It debuted at SXSW in March 2016, where it afterward won the SXSWedu launch competition.

According to Van, who was born and raised in Vietnam, the idea for ELSA was prompted by her personal experience in trying to learn English.

“I moved to the Country for my MBA and Master’s in Education at Stanford, ” she says. “My first year at Stanford was very challenging because of my ability to speak English. A plenty of the time, people misunderstood me, ” Van continues.

Although ELSA’s founder was able to write and read English fairly well, she wanted to find a good solution for improving her accent- and she came up short.

“I realized that people didn’t actually have a lot of solutions…when it comes to speaking, they could either go to a speech therapist that costs them $150 an hour, who could listen to them and fix their accent, or they could go to YouTube or watch Netflix, which is a one-way learning answer, ” Van says.

She decided to develop ELSA as an expression of the results of her own fights, bringing in co-founder Dr. Anguera to help create ELSA’s proprietary speech recognition technology.

To use ELSA, language learners download the app for iOS or Android, then take ELSA’s five-minute appraisal exam which identifies the user’s accent proficiency and identifies where they still have challenges. This information is then used to build out a personalized curriculum, tailored to the user’s current abilities.

In ELSA, there are around 600 lessons and 3,000+ words across a variety of topics, like introductions, talking about family or relationships, employment creation and hiring, traveling, and more. The app is also updated regularly with seasonal and timely topics, like lessons featuring the holidays, or even the new “Star Wars” movie, so learners can better participate in everyday communication.

The lessons themselves are bite-sized, at 2 minutes long. They have five exercises that get progressively harder, including accents of words, phrases and sentences.

ELSA works by listening to learners’ voices, then matching up what they said with the correct American English pronunciation. The terms on the screen are highlighted in red, yellow and green to show how well each the student did. The app will also help by making suggestions as to how the speaker can improve on a given voice- for example, by telling them how to shape their mouth or move their tongue.

Behind the scenes, ELSA is powered by A.I. technology, that listens to users’ speech- something the team constructed from scratch.

“The speech recognition technology out there is slightly different[ from ELSA ]. They try to guess what you’re telling, whether you’re saying it right or wrong. It’s plainly very forgiving to blunders. What we want to do is the exact opposite, ” says Van.

Since its launch two years ago, ELSA has been adopted by a few million users in over 100 countries, with around half its user base in Southeast Asia, and the rest spread out elsewhere in the world, including in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Users are today practicing a few million exercises per week.



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Josh.ai raises $11 million for a premium home automation system with a smarter AI

One of the promises of voice-based calculating is the ability to attain home automation simpler something that major tech companies, including Amazon, Apple and Google, are now tackling with their own voice assistants and smart speakers. But their solutions are still somewhat clunky, both in terms of the software interface for configuring your smart home and the voice commands you use to take actions. Thats where the startup Josh.aicomes in.

The company has now created $11 million to design a better voice-controlled system for smart homes, and will afterward this year release its own hardware dedicated to this purpose.

Headquartered in Denver with offices in L.A ., Josh.ai is the product of serial entrepreneursAlex Capecelatro, CEO, and Tim Gill, CTO. The two previously worked together on a social recommendations app Yeti, which had begun its life as At The Pool, andwas sold back in 2015. Gill, who had previously founded and sold Quark( Quark XPress ), had joined Yeti as a technical advisor, and wrote a number of the algorithm being implemented in the app.

Following the sale of Yeti, the two teamed up again to work on a project in the smart home space something they were both interested in for personal reasons.

Gill, for example, had spent years developing his own home automation system his version of Mark Zuckerbergs Jarvis to run inside the large residential property he was building in Denver.

He was well underway in building the house and understanding what the competition looked likewhat the product offerings looked like, explainsCapecelatro. And he was pretty dissatisfied with what was out there.

Meanwhile, Capecelatro was also constructing a home for himself in L.A ., and running into the same problems.

I was just amazed that all of the big automation systems Crestron, Control4, and Savant they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the[ user interface] looks like its from the 90 s, he says. It was weird that for a ton of money in my home where you want to have a delightful experience, the best offerings on the table merely werent that good.

The founders insured a need in the market for something that sits above mass market solutions, like Apples Home app, or Alexas smart home control, which focus more on tying together after-market devices, like security cameras, smart doorbells, or smart illuminates like Philips Hue.

They founded the startup Josh.ai in March 2015, and shipped the first product the following year.

The solution, as it exists today, includes a kit with a Mac mini and iPad, and software that runs the home. After plugging in the Mac, Josh.ai auto-discovers devices on the network. It can identify those from over 50 manufacturers. For example, it can control lighting and shades like those from Lutron, music systems like Sonos, dozens of brands of security cameras, Nest thermostats, Samsung smart TVs, and even more niche products like Global Cachs box for controlling IR devices( such as your not-so-smart TVs ).

The automatic speech recognition( AKA speech-to-text) portion of Josh.ais system is handled in the cloud, while Mac mini manages the natural language processing to know what your commands mean.

What builds Josh.ai unique “wasnt just” its software interface, but how users interact with the system. You speak to the voice deputy Josh to tell the home what to do.( You can also change its name if thats an issue, or even pick from a variety of male and female voices and accents .)

Josh, or the wake word youve chosen, precedes your command, which can be spoken use more natural language. The system is better than many when it comes to construing what you entail, by nature of its single-purpose focus on home automation.

For instance, you can tell Josh to turn it off , and it will know what it entails because it remembers what it had turned on before. Or you can say, its hot in here , and Josh will know how to adjust your thermostat.

It can also deep-link to streaming video content, so you can ask to watch Planet Earth, and Josh will turn on the TV, switch to the right input, launch Netflix, then start playing the show.

Josh.ai supports scenes, as well, allowing you to configure a number of devices to work together like suns, shades, music, fans, thermostats, and other switches. That route, you can say things like turn everything off , and Josh knows to shut down all the connected devices in the home.

Where the system gets really smart is in its ability to handle complex, compound commands entailing controlling multiple devices in one sentence.

You can say to Josh, play Simon and Garfunkel and turn on the suns , for example. Or, play Explosions in the sky in the kitchen, and play Simon and Garfunkel in the living room . Other systems could get tripped up by the and and the in the in the artists names, but Josh.ai understands when those terms are a transgres between two commands, and when theyre part of something else.

The current system which was largely designed for high-end homes is sold by professional integrators at around $10,000 and up, depending on the components involved. To date, the team has sold more than 50 and fewer than 100 installations.

Josh.ai can work over your Echo or Google Home, if you prefer, and includes interfaces for iOS, Android and the web. But the company is now preparing to launch its own, farfield mic answer in a new hardware device thats built specifically for use in the home.

While the new hardware will perform some basic virtual assistant kind chores telling you the climate, perhaps( the company isnt corroborating specific features at this time) the main focus will be on home automation.

Above: a tease of the new device

The hardware wont be a cylindrical shape like Echo or Google Home, but will be designed with an aesthetic appeal in mind.

It also wont be super cheap.

It will still be a premium product, but it will be a lot less than where the present product is. And the idea is this will enable our mass market rollout in probably a year to eighteen months , notesCapecelatro, speaking of his plan to keep bringing Josh.ais technology to ever larger audiences.

Josh.ai, a team of 15 soon to be 25, lately closed on$ 8 million in new funding, largely from the founders personal networks. The investors names arent being disclosed because theyre not institutional firms. To date, Josh.ai has raised $11 million, but has not yet added anyone to its board.

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