Big Idea

Bridging the gap

Uniphore's speech recognition and voice biometrics technology has banks and rural-focused companies queuing up

Take two dyed-in-the-wool Delhi boys, shift them to Chennai — where the “weather is cruel, cultural differences are stark, and the language unfamiliar” — and they will either pack their bags and head back home, or they will hunker down and turn to their work. Umesh Sachdev and Ravi Saraogi clearly belong to the latter category. Seven years after they moved to the city to be part of the IIT Madras incubator, Chennai is now “home” and headquarters of their six-year-old, ₹9-crore business: Uniphore Software Systems, which is trying to bridge the information and digital divide in rural India through its speech-based mobile solutions. Not bad at all for two people who started their entrepreneurial journey early, but not too successfully.

Sachdev and Saraogi were still studying information technology in Delhi in 2006 when they set up their first venture, Singularis Technologies, to track lost mobiles. The business didn’t take off, but it did set the stage for their next venture. While building business for Singularis, the duo met several influencers in the telecom field, from service providers and regulators to telecom experts, including Ashok Jhunjhunwala, professor of electrical engineering at IIT Chennai, who invited Sachdev and Saraogi to become a part of the Rural Technology and Business incubator (RTBI) at IIT, which he was running. “He told us, ‘I can see you are very passionate about technology and mobility but lack business acumen. We can fill the gaps with mentorship through our extensive alumni network’,” recalls Umesh Sachdev, the 28-year-old CEO of Uniphore.

The opportunity to build what could possibly be the next big thing in telecom was too good to miss. As soon as they graduated in 2007, Saraogi and Sachdev shifted to Chennai and began laying the foundation for their undecided new venture. This time, the duo decided to figure out the gaps in the market and build a business model around it rather than building a product and then finding the market fit. They were certain they wanted to leverage the mobile medium to provide access to key services such as commerce, livelihood-relation information and entertainment. In telecom, though, it was clear that 95% Indian mobile subscribers were only using voice and any solution they built would have to be based on voice. 

As part of a test pilot, they set up a call centre that provided information on subjects such as agriculture, health, education, employment and entertainment. They put up posters in three districts in Tamil Nadu, with a number of the call centre, asking people to call in for information. The result was better than expected: they got more than 10,000 calls in three months. The maximum questions related to agriculture, employment and financial services and the call centre was able to answer 90% of them after searching the internet.

Clearly, the information and the information-seeker both existed; only the divide had to be bridged. And the process would have to be automated, since a one-to-one call centre wouldn't be cost effective. “We knew we had to automate the process and have the computer answer the questions,” says Saraogi, the 30-year-old COO of Uniphore. 

More importantly, the response to queries would have to be in the local language of the caller. So, Sachdev and Saraogi built a mobile platform based on speech recognition algorithms that could convert text to speech and back in Indian languages. The platform would deliver customised information on a variety of subjects, which customers could access through the speech recognition system. Working on the insight that for financial services, voice authentication was critical for the transaction, they also developed a voice biometric system that authenticates the customer’s voice before transaction. The company has applied for four patents on the technology it developed for speech recognition and voice biometrics. With the technology in place, Uniphore was finally launched in April 2008. 

 At your service

So, what does Uniphore do? It uses voice and data technology to transform any mobile device into an enterprise delivery platform connecting businesses in sectors such as agriculture, financial services, retail, education and their customers. The firm has developed two cloud-based products that can be downloaded as apps onto phones. In partnership with the US-based Nuance Communications, a $1.8-billion speech recognition firm, Uniphore developed VoiceNet, which works on interactive voice response (IVR) and has been especially developed for low-end phones. Target customers: financial services firms and banks that want to enable rural consumers to carry out transactions remotely. Consumers dial the bank, which greets them through the IVR and authenticates their voice by asking them to repeat a phrase. Once the voice sample is matched with the records, they are allowed to transact. VoiceNet is also being used by contract framing companies and agricultural input business to deliver customised information on the weather, products and farming techniques to farmers, patients who cannot visit hospitals, even train students and teachers. 

Uniphore’s other flagship product, mForce, developed for smartphones and tablets, helps financial services firms improve the efficiency of their field sales force and retail firms deliver real-time information across their distribution chain in small towns and villages by making the entire documentation process seamless. Now, the process of filling forms, scanning documents and getting approvals, which takes a week to 10 days, can be done instantly through the agent’s smartphone or tablet.

Given the growing focus on financial inclusion and rural customers, it’s not surprising that there are several takers for its products, including the Tamil Nadu government, Thomson Reuters, financial services firms such as Cholamandalam and Muthoot Finance, and banks such as Axis Bank and State Bank of India. Different customers use different services and are charged on a per transaction basis. The cost to the customer varies from 50-60 paise to ₹5-6 per transaction, depending on the volumes — whether it is, say, a bank, reaching out to its depositors, or a company carrying out a pilot project in just one or two towns. 

Uniphore now has 76 employees, including a sales and marketing team of 20, and around 40 customers who together reach out to over 2 million end-users.

Powering the change

The founders invested ₹5 lakh of their own money in their venture, which formed part of the $100,000 seed funding they had raised from RTBI, the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) and non-profit organisation, Villgro, which invests in firms that transform lives in rural India. “Uniphore will help bridge the digital divide between rural and urban India with their technology,” says PR Ganapathy, COO, Villgro. “We are excited that the firm is using cutting edge tech to benefit the people at the bottom of the pyramid by delivering information and extending banking services to them.” Plans are on to raise series A funding to help the firm achieve its ambition of increasing revenue from the current ₹9 crore to ₹120 crore by FY18. “We are crossing the chasm where people wanted to try our product because they were excited about new tech to where customers are realising the business sense of what we are offering,” says Sachdev. 

And that’s not just in India. Saraogi says Uniphore has been getting offers to launch its services in Iran and Africa. For now, it wants to stay focused on the opportunity in India. “A couple of years from now, we will pick geographies where we can replicate what we have done in India,”  he says.

The duo sees speech recognition tech taking off in the next couple of years as larger firms such as Google and Apple continue to place bets around the technology. “We want to be ahead of the technology, so we are investing back in our processes,” says Saraogi. Challenges remain: from finding the people to work on high-end tech to driving adoption of the technology in traditional industries. Says Villgro’s Ganapathy, “Companies are now increasingly using the technology to increase their reach with consumers and its growth potential is immense given the pain points it solves for firms and consumers alike.” 

And while tech firms from Infosys and Wipro to standalone app developers can offer mobile apps and firms such as VoiceTrust can offer speech recognition tech as individual offerings, no one else offers both as an integrated platform and focused on enterprise mobility. Uniphore’s first-mover advantage aside, the company’s edge also comes from its multi-language portfolio, which recognises over 100 local dialects in addition to 14 Indian languages and some foreign languages such as Arabic and Tagalog. Besides, Uniphore is also talking with OEM handset and tablet manufacturers to embed the application in their devices, which will help the company widen its footprint much faster and give it a distinct edge over rivals.  

And that’s a priority, since Uniphore doesn’t see itself as a social enterprise, even though its opportunity lies in rural markets. “I don’t think entrepreneurship has a suffix or prefix. We chose to operate in the rural market because it was an untapped market. It was a business decision,” says Sachdev. According to him, the focus has always been to run a profitable business, which helped the company break even in the second year of operations, with the primary goal of delivering value to consumers. Social or not, it is clear that Uniphore will transform rural lives using mobility. With its technology and a population of 850 million mobile users, it is only a matter of time before it does.