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How this Vietnamese entrepreneur received Google’s backing for her A.I. app

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The coronavirus has sparked a revolution in schooling, pushing colleges and establishments on-line and driving new demand for e-learning apps.

One amongst them is ELSA, a synthetic intelligence (AI)-powered language platform designed to assist non-native English learners enhance their speech and pronunciation by way of brief, app-based classes.

Underneath the pandemic, the Google-backed firm — which makes use of machine studying to coach spoken English particularly — has hit round 11 million customers and tapped new markets as worldwide lockdowns have prompted a brand new want for tech-based studying options.

Vu Van, co-founder and CEO of AI-powered English language app ELSA.


However when Vietnamese entrepreneur Vu Van based the corporate in 2015, it was out of a complete totally different necessity.

A billion-person downside

Van nonetheless remembers struggling to search out her voice.

Having relocated to the U.S. from her native Vietnam some years earlier than, first for research then for work, she regularly discovered herself missing the arrogance to talk out, regardless of being fluent in English.

It was an issue shared by her non-native friends. Issues over mispronunciation held them again in her Stanford MBA class and, later, administration consulting work, usually main them to be missed or, worse nonetheless, mentioned Van, mistrusted.

To talk confidently and fluently in order that different individuals can perceive you, that may be mounted.

Vu Van

co-founder and CEO, ELSA

And if it was a problem for them, it was a problem for a lot of others, too. Of the roughly 1.5 billion English audio system globally, the World Financial Discussion board estimates over 1 billion are non-native or studying English as a second language.

So Van determined to do one thing about it, dreaming up a tech-enabled instrument that might precisely detect customers’ damaged English and supply easy-to-follow options at a fraction of the price of a tutor.

“To get an ideal American accent or British accent, that is very laborious. However to talk confidently and fluently in order that different individuals can perceive you, that may be mounted. And if there’s plenty of profit in doing so, then why not?” she advised CNBC Make It.

Discovering a co-founder

Nonetheless, with no AI or machine studying expertise of her personal, Van knew she had her work minimize out making her imaginative and prescient a actuality.

Having give up her consulting job, she spent the following six months looking for a technical co-founder, chatting with “principally each AI voice recognition professional within the Bay space” to gauge their curiosity and acquire their insights.

Vu Van, co-founder and CEO of AI-powered English language talking app ELSA.


“My strategy was quite simple: Each day I simply want to speak to 5 individuals. I do not care who they’re so long as I can get connections after which these 5 individuals will introduce me to a different 5 individuals,” she mentioned.

Van’s search ultimately led her to Germany, then-host to the world’s largest voice recognition know-how convention, after a technical professor suggested her “when you do not discover anyone there, then you definately would possibly as properly shut the corporate down.”

A gathering of minds

There, amongst a gathering of three,000 specialists, Van met Xavier Anguera, a prime scientist who, as she put it, “had been in analysis for means too lengthy and was itching for that impression.”

Inside weeks, he’d agreed to hitch her, briefly leaving his household in Portugal and relocating to Van’s “tiny” San Francisco condominium to emphasize take a look at the partnership and construct out their concept.

We mentioned if we do not kill one another by the top of the three months then I believe we may be okay.

Vu Van

co-founder and CEO, ELSA

It was a course of that may require complete honesty, with “all of the hardest conversations being had early on,” similar to agreeing on salaries and fairness splits, acknowledged Van, who had collated a guidelines of inquiries to ask with the assistance of her fellow founder mates.

“We mentioned if we do not kill one another by the top of the three months then I believe we may be okay,” she recalled.

Going viral

However the excessive stakes strategy paid off. With Anguera in place as co-founder and chief know-how officer, the pair instantly set to work constructing a prototype; inputting knowledge from non-native English audio system and benchmarking it in opposition to customary American English.

For Van, that meant hitting the bottom in her native Vietnam to assist practice the AI in opposition to a broad set of non-native English audio system, from bus drivers to boardroom executives.

English language app ELSA offers customers with suggestions on they excellent their talking and pronunciation.


Nevertheless, the true turning level got here just a few months later, when ELSA received South by Southwest’s 2016 start-up competitors, inflicting the app to go viral, amassing 30,000 customers inside 24 hours, and granting the group entry to consumer knowledge from internationally.

“The purpose initially was gathering knowledge, so the quicker we are able to get there the quicker we are able to practice our AI,” mentioned Van.

Profitable Google’s backing

With a global dataset in place to teach the know-how on a variety of non-native English accents, from India to Spain, the wheels had been set in movement.

Shortly afterward, having relied on their very own financial savings for round six months, Van and Anguera secured an preliminary seed funding to develop the enterprise. By early 2018, with a rising group and a number of other million customers throughout 100 international locations, ELSA secured $3.2 million in funding, together with from Southeast Asia-focused enterprise capital fund Monk’s Hill Ventures.

We had been very impressed by Vu and Xavier’s conviction in fixing an actual downside.

Peng T. Ong

co-founder and managing associate, Monk’s Hill Ventures

“ELSA was one in all our first investments in Vietnam the place we had been very impressed by Vu and Xavier’s conviction in fixing an actual downside for over 1.5 billion English learners,” Monk’s Hill Ventures’ co-founder and managing associate Peng T. Ong advised CNBC Make It by way of electronic mail.

That vote of confidence was bolstered in 2019, when backing from Google’s AI-focused Gradient Ventures took complete funding raised to greater than $12 million and granted ELSA entry to Google’s group of technical employees to assist construct out its backend infrastructure.

Surging below the pandemic

The increase got here simply months earlier than the coronavirus pandemic overturned schooling and supercharged the expansion of on-line instruments.

ELSA — which operates a freemium mannequin that provides customers full entry to over 1,000 programs for round $3-$6 per 30 days, relying on their package deal — has since seen consumer numbers surge “three-to-four occasions” on a month-to-month foundation, in keeping with Van.

That progress is just not solely from ELSA’s typical customers, but additionally from colleges and companies adapting to new methods of instructing. The corporate has now partnered with dozens of colleges and enterprises throughout Vietnam and India, in addition to Brazil and Ukraine, because it expands into the business-to-business market (B2B).

“Covid actually opened up a section that’s new for us,” mentioned Van. “There is a paradigm shift amongst dad and mom that there is a totally different means of studying. As an alternative of at all times having to ship their children to a language studying middle or a faculty, they will depend on know-how. We journey on the advantage of that.”

Constructing for the long run

Because the pandemic rolls on, that demand is prone to proceed. “In in the present day’s world, fluent English is taken into account an asset for larger financial alternative and we count on to see the persevering with progress of edutech — partly accelerated by the pandemic — in Southeast Asia with extra entrepreneurs bringing schooling innovation via know-how,” mentioned Ong.

Van mentioned which means additional fundraising shall be “on the horizon” quickly, as the corporate appears to be like to bolster its current groups in San Francisco, Vietnam, India and Japan, whereas setting its sights on new markets like Brazil and South Korea.

The brand new mom additionally mentioned ELSA is exploring extra product improvements, similar to steady monitoring, that may permit the app to offer suggestions stories primarily based on conversations had all through the day. Such additions, she famous, might want to carefully adhere to knowledge privateness guidelines.

“2020 has been a loopy 12 months, however I believe now we have performed properly and we’re excited for what’s in retailer for 2021,” she mentioned.

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