Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Interview with Craig Hagopian, V-Enable
My interview today is with Craig Hagopian, President and COO of V-Enable (www.v-enable.com), a San Diego company developing voice driven, mobile search technology. The company provides technology that allows cell phone users to use their voice to navigate and access data. The mobile applications space has been heating up lately, and there has been a lot of attention given to the space due to a patent Google just received over voice assisted search. I spoke a bit with Craig to get his perspective on V-Enable, and also to see how that patent affects the company.
Ben Kuo: Tell me a little about V-Enable and how you fit into the market?
Craig Hagopian: V-Enable, as you probably know, has been around since 2001. The company has been completely focused around multimodal search. The forefront of that has been voice. That's where we spend ost of our time. However, we do have extensions into other multimodal parts of the business. The net of this is we are focused on the mobile search space around making the experience for the user better, faster, and more complete experience. What that really drills down to is that today with content, better/faster handsets, and what I call the vending environment getting larger, people are having more difficulty understanding their data service, and how do they get a richer experience. For the last four years, it's been hard to tell the story. However, in the last twelve months, it's been quite easy. I feel quite fortunate to be with the company at this time, I've been on board for eight months as their president, I don't think the traction is due to me, but the great technology of the company, and being in the right place at the right time. We're powering right now, commercially, applications with Cricket/Leap Wireless, we have applications sitting on Verizon Wireless, Alltel, and US Cellular. Those are all, as you can surmise, BREW or CDMA carriers. That doesn't restrict our technology, it's just those carriers have been more aggressive in the U.S. to adopt us. I'm seeing that across the board in Europe as well. We're independent of technologies and OSes.
BK: What's behind your technology?
CH: There's a couple different pieces here. We built a client, what we call a thin client, which means that is is quite friendly from a hardware standpoint and memory standpoint. It's somewhat less than 25K. That is the beginning of the magic for us. That's where we take your voice utterance, we compress it, we do some noise detection, clean up the file, and shoot that off to the server. We're not doing any work on the handset. It's purely just capture of the voice, sent to our gateway—the other part of our implementation—and there, we open up that little data package that's been compressed, clean it up, do a matching against our phenome database catalog of content, keywords, by carrier or application we've been embedded into, and present results. That used to take—to be honest with you – in 04, 03, the early days—and maybe even two years ago—fourteen seconds. That's not a very good experience. When you speak into a phone, say you say “cricket scores”, and wait for twelve seconds. That made it pretty difficult for the technology to be adopted. Today, that whole round trip is less than a second. Now, that's due to three things. One, is we've been doing a great amount of work in how we set up and take down those calls, and do a proprietary SIP/RTP transfer. Second, is the networks have gotten much faster and much less latency driven, and the third thing is the devices have gotten better. The technology has incubated itself to today, it's the right time for voice search to impact applications. I've been out on the road for a couple of weeks, and every account I've gone to--and I'm talking the top ten carriers in the United States—voice is a key part of their roadmap, to their content acquisition and delivery to their subscribers, and even broader to general search or local search, as I call it. This is the right timing for a business in the mobile industry.
BK: Is that what drove the recent venture round you received?
CH: Softbank and Palisades came in, they did a six million dollar round. That brings us up to, since our origin date, a little bit over twelve million funded into the company. But this one is a significant one, and we don't believe we'll need additional funding going forward, because we do have revenues against current implementations, plus with the funding and with what we're driving with future business we'll reach something where we're self-sustaining in the next 12 to 24 months. And our cash which we've received is going to last us longer than that. So, for me, it's just about execution right now.
BK: So are you seeing lots of competition in this space?
CH: I wish I saw a little more, to be honest with you. For the market to get better, we need more people to be carrying this voice banner forward. I'm doing it, I know there are some other little companies out there. One's called Promptu in Menlo Park, another is called VoiceBox. They don't have anything commercial, so it's hard for me to compare what they don't do, and how they do it. So, I'm kind of looking forward to looking at them catching up to us. We've been in this space for five years, they have different histories, but I'm hoping they get something going soon, only because it's better for everyone to see the choices and see the differences. Some people have to see a difference so they can see how we're clearly superior.
BK: It looks like you started a little early, and managed to hang on to this so you now you have something?
CH: That's a good point. I think that's maybe a characteristic of a successful entrepreneurial venture. Dipanshu Sharma, our founder, who wasn't able to make the interview with us today, was here in the early tough times when he started the company. I'm sure there were months and quarters and years where it wasn't much fun. I think all that hard work has finally paid off, and the company was able—when the market wasn't—to file six patents, one was granted, which is the first mobile multimodal patent to be granted by the U.S. patent office—we will probably publish it and do some press on it in the next few weeks.
BK: Speaking of patents, there's been a lot of press around Google's voice search patent. I'd be interested to hear what your take on that is...
CH: We obviously take everything that Google does very seriously, as does the rest of the industry. We looked at it, we analyzed it, both from a legal and technical perspective with our counsel and it really has no direct bearing, no infringement issues at all. Basically it doesn't impact the part of the business we actually provide solutions for. It really has more to do with the back office, what I call ASR kinds of processes. And we're an ASR independent organization. We work with best-in-class for any solution—that is Nuance, IBM, Microsoft, or Loquendo or voice search engines, I bolt on any of those for implementation. That patent has more to do with that area than anything we're doing today. It's actually been a very positive thing for the company because it's brought lots of awareness and attention to voice and search, and the natural extension is how does that play into their mobile strategy, and that's kind of where we sit.
BK: It seems like the whole wireless application software area has been booming lately, do you think that's accurate?
CH: I think that's accurate. I think that, with any boom, there's the hype, and then there's the substance. If you look at voice versus data today. Data is having 4x growth over voice. That's because carriers are seeing that where the future upside is for their businesses. Both on the bottom line and just kind of creating richer services for their subscribers. If they do that, you'll see that every needs a data delivery mechanism or data transport to make those services richer. And that's why you're seeing all that excitement. The network, OSes, and handsets have finally galvanized to the point where data services are very realistic. I don't know about you, but I enjoy all the high speed data networks now—from GSM camp as well as EVDO from the CDMA side, it makes being a mobile user so much better.
BK: So do you see licensing out your technology to as many carriers as possible, or what's the business model there?
CH: Our business model is kind of a two pronged approach. One is we do want to work directly with leading carriers in implementing our technology, however, we know that there is a huge ecosystem about how does search occur, and how does 411 search occur, so we are aggressively licensing our technology to the complete value chain all around search, or local search. I want to, in a way, become the de-facto search for voice search. It's our client and our gateway that provides that magical experience on the handset. Where it's so crisp, it's so clean, and it gives you a multimodal ability to use text, voice, motion, and other cuing factors to make the interface that much better. And, to your point, it's all around having a complete ecosystem around licensing both with partners and even sometimes who might be perceived to be a competitor. I am open to that, I think you need to be able to navigate those kinds of business situations.
BK: Thanks for the interview!