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Startup Story

Korean startup SOVORO provides AI based speech-to-text service

The Sovoro team

People with hearing loss can use real-time subtitles anytime, anywhere

In Jihyeon Yoon’s third year of university, she was assigned a capstone project, a multifaceted culminating assignment that was required for graduation from her IT engineering major. For her project, she built a prototype of an artificial intelligence (AI)-based speech-to-text translation service that could allow people with hearing loss to see subtitles on a PC or tablet during a conversation. When users with hearing challenges tested the prototype, they encouraged her to release it publicly as a resource for the wider Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing communities.

“They motivated me to build my startup,” says Yoon. “I took a leave of absence from the university for three and a half years to work on the startup.”

Yoon moved to Seoul to collaborate with Sungwoo Oh, who still runs sales & marketing on what has become a team of 27. Sovoro uses Google Cloud Speech-to-Text’s real-time speech recognition to display a speaker's spoken words as subtitles on a user’s PC or tablet. Currently, over 600 organizations use Sovoro—including companies, schools, and government institutions— as do individual users. The service is used for offline meetings, conferences, and hearing loss treatment and shows real-time captions on tablets and personal computers. The captions are accomplished via draft-scripting, which provides real-time speech-to-text script using AI, and Sovoro is able to mark words in red if it’s not 100% sure of the word’s accuracy.

“Google Cloud provides great APIs for utilizing AI in our service, like Cloud Speech API,” says Yoon. “We’re also interested in more machine learning (ML) features we haven’t tried yet, like natural language processing (NLP) or Vertex AI. For further development, we’re interested in using more of Google’s AI products.

Google Technologies and Google for Startups Accelerator: Korea

When Yoon heard about Accelerator: Korea in the Google for Startups newsletter, she clicked right away and applied.

“I felt that our team was at the right stage for us to apply, and felt I like our product and team would fit very well into the program,” says Yoon. “Our cyberinfrastructure has relied on Google from the beginning. We needed to grow deeper technically, and we were hoping for the program to be a great opportunity to reach our next goal, a Series A investment.”

Sovoro’s tech mentor at Google for Startups Accelerator: Korea, Jeongkyu Shin, is a machine learning Google Developer Expert and CEO of his own startup, Lablup, Inc., which focuses on AI accessibility. Shin connected the Sovoro team to resources such as demos, additional reading materials and codelabs, and helped them test noise-canceling technology to improve Sovoro’s sound quality and speech recognition.

They also learned about Google’s use of key performance indicators (KPIs), which are metrics teams use to evaluate the factors that will lead to business success, and objectives and key results (OKRs), which teams use to set goals and track progress.

“Like other startups, we started with three or four people, and it became 20-30, and as the team grows, it feels like sometimes it's hard to communicate,” says Oh. “Google for Startups Accelerator, for me, was more than using Cloud and getting resources, it was a good opportunity to learn about KPIs and OKRs. I wanted to implement that system into our workspace, and it’s beginning to feel like it’s working. Communication is improving.”

Fundraising experience and what’s next for Sovoro

Sovoro has successfully completed three funding rounds. After the company’s first three or four months, they received their first investment, from Sopoong in Korea. Eight months after that, their second investment was a pre-Series A round from D3 Jubilee, the biggest impact fund in Korea. After participating in Google for Startups Accelerator, Sovoro raised their Series A funding round.

“The most important thing I learned from investors is to be truthful when I communicate with them,” says Yoon. “We are continuing to grow, and we aim to be the leading assistive technology company in Korea, maybe adding more products for other uses.”

“We aim to use this technology to give benefits to those who need them, which is why I joined this company,” adds Oh, who volunteered as a child in a community that served visually impaired people.

Sovoro’s next step will be to release mobile products linked with a speech-to-text (STT) editor, so students can save and edit their text within their website or mobile application. Yoon is also interested in market expansion for universal usage.

“We received so many requests from non-disabled people who wanted to write down their recorded voice files or videoclips, so we launched a second service, typeX, to test the possibilities of market expansion,” says Yoon. “Everyone who needs a transcript can visit our site and ask for quick, cheap, qualified transcripts of their audio.”

Sovoro’s second service is designed for a broader audience and features speech-to-text timestamping on recorded audio files and text that’s reviewed by editors once the AI transcript is produced. Shortcut keys allow audio playback speed to be adjusted, paused, sped up, or slowed down. Sovoro plans to launch the second service in September 2022.

“Before joining the Accelerator, we provided mostly text for normal conversations, but after the Accelerator, we wanted to deliver more customized functionality, for people who work in specific settings or students who are in school,” says Oh. “We’re planning to launch our next service by September 2022 for students in school who need their text to be accurate, in order to be used as a study guide. We’re starting with students, and then we’re planning to develop more functionality for working professionals who have hearing difficulty by next year.”

Yoon says Sovoro’s strong team and low-stress environment makes it a great place to work, and reminds other startup founders and employees to focus on physical health. Her advice?

“Exercise is good for preventing burnout and maintaining your mental health,” she says. “You also need to work to gain the trust of your teammates and investors. My last piece of advice is to participate in Google for Startups Accelerator!”

Learn more about Sovoro