A case of nerves is normal when students make presentations in class. Nico Aguilar did this one better when he was a student at the University of Iowa.
“I had a complete panic attack in front of my whole rhetoric class,” recalls Aguilar, a 2014 UI graduate from Solon, Iowa. “My palms were sweaty, my breathing stopped. My mind went blank and I totally botched my presentation.
But out of this disaster something precious came out. This helped Aguilar and Anthony Pham, currently a UI student, come up with the idea for Speeko, a voice analysis company that uses artificial intelligence to help people avoid embarrassing public speaking experiences by measuring and improving their verbal communication skills. As a team, the two embarked on the success of a start-up during several university and international entrepreneurial competitions.
Speeko’s team of developers and data scientists have designed machine learning algorithms to identify the voice patterns of superior and poor communicators. The algorithms are based on thousands of voice recordings and are based on years of academic research into effective communication practices. Speeko is available through a mobile app, where users check in and get instant feedback on characteristics such as rhythm, pause, intonation and eloquence.
The app points out weak spots and also provides lessons on how to improve. This can tell the user to stop using filler words like “like” and “you know”, or cut the conversation down at the end of a sentence. This makes him as much a coach as a critic.
“Talking to other people is such an important part of our life, but so few of us have any comments on it,” says Aguilar, who used a speech coach after his rhetoric class collapsed, a experience that inspired the Speeko algorithm.
Aguilar met Pham, a native of Davenport, Iowa, in class while they were in undergraduate physiology at UI, and the two graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 2011. They became friends while working on research projects. group and then collaborated with other start-ups. while contributing to a National Institutes of Health-funded research project that measured communication patterns in medical settings. Both were graduate students at the time, studying at the College of Public Health. Aguilar received his Masters of Public Health (MPH) and Masters of Health Administration in 2014, while Pham is expected to earn an MPH in 2019. Pham also received his MDs from Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver. College of Medicine in 2016..
Describing themselves as tech junkies, the two were avid users of mobile apps that help people improve a variety of skills, from learning new languages to tracking exercises to meditation, products that “it’s like having a coach in your pocket,” says Pham, who is also struggled with public speaking.
“We were seeing this happening in other industries and we were like, ‘Why aren’t we harnessing the incredible advancements in technology to improve communication coaching? ”, Explains Pham.
By merging these experiences and ideas, Pham and Aguilar worked evenings and weekends Speeko while continuing their respective graduate studies. They connected with the UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) and participated in numerous events, winning the Rose Francis Elevator Pitch Competition and the JPEC Business Model Competition in 2017. The latter propelled them to the International Business Model Competition 2018. , where they were semi-finalists.
More recently, the Speeko team was selected by Techstars, a global start-up accelerator, to be part of its Chicago 2018 cohort. Only 10 companies out of more than 2,200 applications were chosen for the three-month program which ran from July to October 2018. Techstars provided teams with workspace and direct access to a network of mentors from Midwestern investors, executives and tech founders.
The Speeko app went on sale in the Apple iOS App Store in the fall of 2018 for a monthly subscription. She already has at least one satisfied customer, Obi Omile, an entrepreneur who is part of Techstars. Omile downloaded the app in September, believing that his speaking skills were adequate and that he didn’t need the help of an algorithm. He decided to give it a try anyway, to see how it worked.
“After I started playing with it, I found it very useful,” he says. He realized he was speaking too fast when giving introductions, and his words followed one another. Speeko’s digital lessons and skill games helped him not only identify his problems, but also solve them.
“It especially helped me to improve my diction, my speaking and my intonation by isolating these parts of my speech so that I can work to improve them,” says Omile. This has already paid off with improved presentations to potential investors in his business, he says.
Speeko is currently headquartered in two cities. While Aguilar is now based in Chicago and works full time at Speeko, Pham is completing both his Masters in Public Health in Occupational and Environmental Health and his medical residency at IU Hospitals. & Clinics.
“Improving people’s communication skills is how we want to improve people’s lives,” Pham says. “The ability to communicate effectively contributes to your personal and professional success and to your well-being. “
The duo are also encouraging aspiring UI entrepreneurs to take advantage of the vast resources offered by the university.
“JPEC will connect you with a strong local network of entrepreneurs and mentors,” says Pham. “This is how we started. It can take you out of your comfort zone to present your ideas to new people. Taking this first step is the only way to learn, and it will make all the difference in turning your ideas into reality.
Deb Venzke contributed to this story.