Vocal recognition: Lojain Jibawi finding his voice with Votek

Lojain Jibawi’s ambition is to see his company Votek’s speech recognition technology used in a host of products, from children’s toys and B2B apps to search engines and home automation systems.

Jibawi: “I see a lot of potential and if I run only off the profits now, I can’t go as fast as I would like to go.”

Jibawi: “I see a lot of potential and if I run only off the profits now, I can’t go as fast as I would like to go.”

He trained as a dentist, but Dr. Lojain Jibawi has long had a passion for computer programming. During his student days, the 35-year old Syrian wrote several dentistry apps, including one that could suggest the size of implants before surgery.

“To do that, I had to learn Objective-C language by myself!” he exclaims. “But I found that I could build apps and they would make some money for me.”

Now, he is the co-founder & CEO of Votek, a developer of Arabic speech recognition technology that is used in government applications and in an educational children’s toy, Loujee.

The company has just received angel investment of $1 million and Jibawi plans to use the funds to expand the Loujee range and extend its underlying technology into a whole host of new applications.

Votek came about when Jibawi was still in Syria and met Sawsan Saeed, a fellow programmer who had developed technology for IVR (interactive voice response) systems used in telephony applications. She faced the challenge, often encountered by great technologists, of how to monetise what she had created. “She had built the technology, but was finding it challenging to sell it,” he explains.

So after sitting together and brainstorming, the decision was taken to rebuild the technology for use in mobile applications.

“I said: ‘Perhaps your technology can be reused in a different way, so let us rebuild it and use it in mobile applications’. That really was the start of the project.”

Changing the technology to suit the new world of mobile apps was one thing. Finding a market for it was another.

“We decided we could use it in two domains, one of them is B2B where we could sell this technology for communication, to government and others; the other is in education, mainly as a kid’s toy.”

Thus, Jibawi started work on designing a children’s toy, which would become Loujee, while his business partner continued to work on the underlying technology.

Votek’s progress was soon interrupted, however, when Jibawi was called up for military service and he decided to leave Syria at short notice. He relocated to Dubai after a short wait in Beirut and, after registering Votek as a company in Tecom’s In5 incubator, work on Loujee continued.

Once Jibawi had arrived at a design, it was time to start sending requests for prototypes out to factories in China. He was not happy, however, with what was coming back, especially as he felt the toys were unsafe for children. “After trying 40 factories, I didn’t like any of them, so I made one by myself and I sent it back to the factories and finally I got something I was happy with,” he explains.

As work on Loujee continued, the B2B side of the business scored a major success when it was selected to be used in the Mohammed bin Rashid Housing Establishment (MRHE) app.

With Votek’s technology, customers of MRHE can interact with the organisation using only their voice and can speak in their own Gulf dialect, rather than having to switch to formal Arabic. A key benefit of the solution, according to Jibawi, is that it can be used offline and does not require the user’s device to be constantly sending requests to a server.

“We’re building applications that are almost like Siri, but for companies,” explains Jibawi.

“Instead of calling a customer service agent, you speak and get everything done without waiting for someone to answer you.”

The app has been in use for three years and work is underway on a second version, set to be launched this year at GITEX. It will move beyond the ability to make enquiries and add transactional capability by allowing for applications for land and housing to made by voice.

“It’s trained to recognise the Emirati accent,” explains Jibawi. “The Emirati accent is not one accent. Even in Dubai, there are several accents. It can understand differences in how words are pronounced and there are unique words that we have added to the dictionary.”

The speech recognition technology has also been licensed to GBM, which has developed a solution that allows users to operate their inboxes with their voices. The product has been sold to government clients in the GCC.

Prototype solutions have also been built for Smart Dubai, which would add a voice control layer on top of applications. Votek has entered a bid on a project with Dubai Police that would allow for police services to be requested by voice.

The gains made by the B2B arm of Votek helped to fund the continued development of Loujee and the toy finally went on sale in 2016. It comes in five versions, priced between AED 199 and 325, each corresponding to a different version of iPhone or iPad.

It works by downloading an app to the user’s iOS device, which is then placed and secured inside the toy. The app is populated with a range of content, including songs, stories and facts. Children interact with the toy simply by talking to it.

“When you wake it up, it will start asking you what you want to do today,” explains Jibawi. “It’s not a case of you just ask it a question. It will give you information and ask you about that information, so it will grow the knowledge of children.

“We are starting to add curricula to it, so if you need to learn Arabic, we’re doing something for that. We’re removing the negative aspect [of using electronic gadgets]. People don’t consider it an iPad any more.”

The target age for Loujee is between five and nine years and it now recognises ten Arabic dialects covering Egypt, Levant and the Gulf. Jibawi is clearly passionate about the idea of using technology, whose overuse by children has become such an area of concern for parents, to help educate children.

“I like to work with children and using technology to educate kids; not enough startups are doing that in the Arab world,” he says. “I feel it’s my job to do something for them.”

The product has largely been sold through online channels until now, but that is soon set to change. Votek has a contract to sell the product through Virgin Megastore and is waiting for sufficient stocks to arrive before it moves ahead with its physical retail presence. The company will have its own areas in store and its own representatives present to promote the product.

Jibawi knows that selling through physical retail outlets will require investment, particularly in marketing. It is this, along with a host of other plans related to R&D, that explains why Votek has recently decided to take on external funding of US $1 million from an Arab-American angel investor.

“I see a lot of potential and if I run only off the profits now, I can’t go as fast as I would like to go,” he says. “The investment will make us go much faster.”

On the consumer side, he wants to build a version of Loujee that does not require a smartphone. Only supporting iOS limits the product’s potential market and supporting Android handsets is impractical because of the diversity of Android form factors.

He is determined too to keep rolling out regular content updates. At the moment, Loujee offers around 500 facts, 60 stories and 100 songs. He is particularly keen, going forward, to develop content that can help build positive behaviour in children. “Stories and songs are available everywhere, but building behaviour needs something interactive,” he says.

He is also looking develop a version of Loujee for autistic children. Jibawi has received many requests for such a product and is researching how the toy’s content should be structured.

The underlying Votek technology will continue to be improved and built upon. At the moment it can achieve around 95% voice recognition accuracy (according to Votek’s web site).

With speech recognition technology, the longer it is ‘trained’ by having sentences and words spoken into it, the higher its recognition level becomes. Votek’s 95% accuracy level is achieved with around 40 hours of training, according to Jibawi. He claims rival systems require as much as 3000 hours to hit the same level. “What we will do with the investment is train it up to 1000 hours and the recognition will be even better,” he explains.

This could, for example, allow Votek’s technology to be used for voice searches in Arabic and even, sometime down the road, to operate functions in vehicles. It could also allow a product like Amazon’s Echo, a home automation system, to be operated by an Arabic speaker. “All companies are trying to to copy that,” Jibawi says. “We think it’s where the future is going, people will control machines entirely by speaking.

In other words, Jibawi believes that voice will become the primary control method for the machines of the future. He wants Votek’s technology to be the default choice for any Arabic language voice control interface that emerges.

Votek still has more ideas. Jibawi feel that there is currently no strong Arabic text-to-speech product in the market and he wants Votek to develop such a product. “The purpose of speech recognition [the core of Votek’s current offering] is to understand your voice and convert it into something that the machine can understand.” he says. “TTS turns text into speech. In Arabic, currently, text to speech is very, very bad.”

Investment will, therefore, allow the 16-person company to do much more. There is another reason, however, for the timing. The company is now profitable and Jibawi says this has allowed Votek to hold out for a much better valuation. “We’ve had many offers of investment before, but I wasn’t happy with the valuation of the company,” he says.

One thing that may not change, despite the new investment, is Jibawi’s enthusiasm for business pitch competitions and awards. He says that prize money from various competitions, including $50,000 from the Arab Mobile App Challenge in 2014, has actually helped keep the company going in its seed phase. Straight after meeting Startup magazine, and despite that US $1 million investment, it was off to Bahrain for another business pitch competition.

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