Artificial intelligence

Speak gets investment from OpenAI to expand its language learning platform TechCrunch

Talkan English-learning platform with AI-powered features, today announced it has raised $27 million in a Series B funding round led by the OpenAI Startup Funds, featuring Lachy Groom, Josh Buckley, Justin Mateen, Gokul Rajaram and Founders Fund. Notably, Speak is the third startup in which OpenAI, the AI ​​lab closely aligned with Microsoft, invested publicly through its fund — the others being Description and Memory.

OpenAI Startup Fund participants receive early access to new OpenAI systems and Azure resources from Microsoft in addition to capital.

“We are very pleased to partner with the outstanding team at Speak, who are well positioned to deliver this powerful generative AI application – making language learning efficient and accessible,” Brad Lightcap, COO of OpenAI and Manager of the OpenAI Startup Fund, said in a statement. “Speak has the potential to revolutionize not just language learning, but education more broadly, and this aligns with the OpenAI Startup Fund’s goal of accelerating the impact of powerful AI. to improve people’s lives.”

Speak was founded in 2016 by Connor Zwick and Andrew Hsu, who both had a keen interest in AI from an early age. Hsu has a background in health, having earned a doctorate in neuroscience at Stanford before joining Zwick to co-launch Speak. Zwick comes from the information technology industry – he sold his first startup, flashcard app Flashcards+, to Chegg in 2013 after dropping out of Harvard.

Zwick and Hsu met The Thiel Scholarship originally, Hsu being in the first cohort and Zwick in the second. (Note that Founders Fund, which Thiel co-founded, pledged money for Speak’s Series B.) Before starting Speak, the two spent a year studying and researching machine learning and developing algorithms. accent detection using YouTube videos as training data.

“Most language learning software can help with early learning basic vocabulary and grammar, but gaining a degree of fluency requires speaking out loud in an interactive environment,” Zwick told TechCrunch. in an email interview. “To date, the only way people can get this kind of practice is through human tutors, which can also be expensive, difficult and intimidating.”

Picture credits: Talk

Speak’s solution is a collection of interactive speaking experiences that allow learners to practice conversing in English. Through the platform, users can hold open conversations with an “AI tutor” on a range of topics while receiving feedback on their pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.

The premise may resemble Duolingo and some of the other AI-based language learning apps like Yanadoo, ELSA, and Loora. But Zwick insists that Speak’s AI technology is superior to most.

“Under the hood, we combine the latest in OpenAI with in-house models to deliver the best performance in speech recognition, speech generation, and conversation generation,” he said. “We’re able to provide feedback on things like pronunciation and more natural vocabulary and syntax by using [our] patterns … We accumulate a substantial dataset of second-language labeled speaking examples, which allows us to uniquely provide state-of-the-art speech patterns for foreign accented speakers.

Whether this is true is up for debate. Speak has not provided any empirical data showing that its platform outperforms its rivals. But what is talking Is clearly his precocious momentum. It is one of Korea’s top educational apps on the iOS App Store, with over 15 million lessons started every year, 100,000 active subscribers, and “double-digit” annual recurring revenue.

Speak offers auto-renewing monthly and annual subscriptions, both of which provide access to courses, electives, and review content in addition to AI-guided practice sessions.

For Speak’s next act, the company plans to expand into new languages ​​and markets, including Japan, and invest in features that leverage text generation models like GPT-3. OpenAI.

“The pandemic has accelerated remote working and the expansion of global and distributed teams, which means there are even more demands for people around the world to speak the same language. It has also spurred demand for new solutions more geared towards remote or programmatic experiences as opposed to in-person teaching Zwick added, “Speak has remained quite lean and has several years of trail allowing it to control its own destiny regardless of the environment of fundraising over the next few years.”

Currently, Speak has 40 employees spread across offices in San Francisco (its headquarters), Seoul and Ljubljana, Slovenia. Zwick says the new funding, which brings Speak’s total to “just over” $47 million, will be dedicated to expanding the engineering, machine learning, product, marketing, content departments. and business operations.

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