Lessons from failed biz help techie leave mark in startup world

Umesh becomes sole Indian on Time Magazine’s list of top 10 millennials changing the world through artificial intelligence-heavy speech recognition based tool

Published: 10th June 2016 04:03 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th June 2016 04:03 AM   |  A+A-


CHENNAI: Umesh Sachdev, the only Indian on TIME Magazine’s list of Top 10 millennials who are changing the world, did not arrive where he is on a path strewn with roses. In fact, Sachdev and his partner Ravi Saraogi’s first venture went bust. “I have to be honest. If it weren’t for that first failed business, we wouldn’t be where we are,” said Sachdev to Express.

The co-founders of Uniphore Software Systems, a company that specialises in path-breaking speech recognition software, began their journey as two engineering students in Delhi. “By the final year of college, we already had a business venture called Singularis up and running,” said Sachdev.

But the two had none of the financial acumen necessary to kickstart a business. The concept was fine, Singularis was a service that would track lost mobiles. “But we were amateurs, the business wasn’t revenue generating, so we dropped a year after we finished college,” recalled Sachdev.

The attempt however, would cement their desire to be entrepreneurs. Something that went against the grain as far as Sachdev was concerned.

His father and family come from a professional background. “Ravi, with his Marwari business background, was instrumental in convincing me to not take off for a post graduate degree and then a job,” pointed out Sachdev.

The decision worked out. The two began working on another of their concepts – a speech recognition based tool that reached out to vernacular speakers. The concept was new and grabbed attention. The two were one of the first who were invited to incubate their start-up in the IIT-M Research Park.

“That was a turning point. IIT-M would fund our initial research and we got mentors and advisers like Ashok Jhunjhunwala (the man at the helm of the IIT-M’s incubator). It was critical in learning how to run a successful business,” said Sachdev.

Within a year, they had a basic version of their virtual assistant Akeira up for sale. What they wanted to do was something out of the reach of most multi-million dollar ventures. A speech recognition platform that would understand and act on a multitude of languages.

“We started it off as a simple keyword based program. It found takers. Then we began to incorporate more complex artificial intelligence (AI) systems into it. Now, it is intensely AI heavy and cognitive abilities require huge amounts of data. If we had started with this version first, we would have failed,” admits Sachdev.

Akeira’s success brought more. Uniphore has three basic products now - Akeira, auMina (a voice analytics product) and another product that does voice biometrics. Along the way, Uniphore has also managed to raise funds from backers like Kris Gopalakrishnan and IDG Ventures.

“But the biggest challenge, not just for us, is to get to and stay on the cutting edge. Nearly 20-25 per cent of our yearly budget is poured back into research and development,” pointed out Sachdev.

As for the future, Sachdev and his team are working to enhance their products’ artificial intelligence and cognitive capabilities. “This is the most exciting field in technology right now. Every machine is getting smarter and not just phones,” said Sachdev, parting with one last sally.

“There are dangers for sure, like what would happen if AI became so powerful that they become competitors for humans. But everything technology has its pros and cons, doesn’t it? ”


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