Startup Spotlight: Ava

Startup Spotlight: Ava

Ava cofounders (left to right) Skinner Cheng, Pieter Doevendans, Thibault Duchemin

Ava cofounders (left to right) Skinner Cheng, Pieter Doevendans, Thibault Duchemin

Founded in 2014, Ava is a live caption app that aims to make in-person group conversations accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Ava transcribes conversations in real time, tags, and color codes each voice in the group.

Born hearing, cofounder Thibault Duchemin was inspired when he found himself being the main intermediary to the hearing world with his entirely deaf family. He noticed that deaf and hard-of-hearing people like his family members would isolate themselves from their hearing peers because of communication hurdles which seriously impacted their social and professional opportunities. In an interview with Inc., he explained "face-to-face works because you're slow enough in your feedback. But in groups all the dynamics change. Try to follow somebody, and then somebody else starts speaking. You lose those visual cues, and you end up being lost all the time."

Face-to-face works because you’re slow enough in your feedback. But in groups all the dynamics change... [the deaf] end up being lost all the time.
— Thibault Duchemin

That's when he decided that the 400 million people with hearing loss needed a way to understand and communicate better with the hearing in real time. Thus, Ava was born. Ava uses speech-to-text and voice identification technologies to transcribe a group conversation in real time, even among noise, music, or overlapping voices. They started on Indiegogo and raised $30,000 in just six days. To date, they've earned $1.9 million in funding and have been featured in TechCrunch, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Inc. I sat down with cofounder and COO Pieter Doevendans to get the inside scoop on Ava:


How did you team up and decide this idea was worth pursuing as a business?

We won a weekend startup competition while we were studying at UC Berkeley. Our idea at the time was a wearable device that translated sign language into voice. Winning the competition as part of the weekend, we continued to pursue the idea as a side project on our evenings and weekends.

In our second semester we were admitted into a class by six-time entrepreneur & lecturer Steve Blank. We really dug deep and got out of the building to interview our users until we identified the core problem that led so many deaf people to feel excluded from hearing society. The main problem wasn’t so much the ability for any deaf person to make themselves more understandable. Instead, every individual we spoke to told us their biggest challenge was to understand conversations, and especially in groups. If they couldn’t participate in a group, they wouldn’t feel good about making hearing friends to expand their network and opportunities. This is where the idea of Ava, the mobile app, came into existence. We knew about the ability to use multiple phones as speakers for one song so we figured that we could also use multiple phones to listen all together.

It was just before graduation and after finishing the class that we looked at each other and said, “what if we try to pursue this as an actual company?” We then figured out a way to have a little tiny office in one of the Berkeley buildings, and promised each other to spend only the three summer months to see how far we would get. If we couldn’t make any progress we would part ways and do our own things. If we did get to the next milestone, we would continue to work on it together and even go full time. By the end of the summer, we built a prototype and got into an accelerator, Boost VC, to prepare our initial prototypes and crowdfunding campaign.
 

What has been the company’s biggest challenge? How did you overcome it?

Last October, we had the opportunity to caption the Dreamforce conference. It was a really big deal in terms of logistics. There were 70 breakout sessions to coordinate, as well as educate the audio engineers operating the speaker system to set up the Ava accessibility on top of it. The constant demand of captioning over the three days was very strenuous on us. In the end, it was the coordination of the team and resilience of our engineers fixing the servers until late at night that made this huge conference accessible to the one hundred deaf & hard-of-hearing people in attendance. It was a great occasion to test our systems before our launch, and we learned a great deal from the experience.
 

Describe your proudest moment with the company and what it meant to you.

Landing an investment from TOMS Social Entrepreneurship Fund. We were at the Kairos Society Global Summit where 50 startups were selected from quite a large batch from all over the world. In a short interview we had to pitch and explain why Ava has a clear social impact and why it also makes sense from a business standpoint. Later that day there was the award ceremony where in front of the whole audience, startups were called out to come get their prizes. None of the startups knew if they had won anything at this point, so the moment we won this prize from the founders, we were super happy. Especially because we felt recognized for having such a clear social mission.
 

Where do you envision Ava 5 years from now?

Ava will be in the hands of millions of people worldwide who need better communication technologies to be integrated into society. We will have a product that works with all smart devices, as well as technology such as augmented reality to project captions wherever you want them and whenever you want them. Our team will be significantly bigger and we will have applications that can also benefit hearing people in many ways.


If you are interested in contacting Ava, please visit their website at https://www.ava.me/.

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