New Delhi: John Chambers, executive chairman of Cisco Inc. and chairman of the recently-formed US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), has picked up a 10% stake in speech recognition solutions company Uniphore Software Systems Pvt. Ltd in his personal capacity.

Chennai-based Uniphore, which made it to the list of winners in the 2016 India edition of the “Innovators Under 35", is headed by Umesh Sachdev, who is its co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO).

During his keynote at EmTech India 2016, Chambers had insisted that India’s “startup ecosystem" is “an important growth engine". “If you want to do a startup, this is the right time, the inflection point has just happened in India," Chambers had said.

Chambers had simultaneously committed to mentor a few startups that had made it to the India “Innovators Under 35" 2016 list, and had followed up with a couple of video-conferencing sessions to make good his promise. “The investment in Uniphore is a logical outcome of those meetings," Chambers said on Thursday.

“I am a big believer in India and its potential for producing globally relevant startups like Uniphore. I have been impressed with Umesh’s leadership and passion for improving customer experience," said Chambers, who plans to invest in “2-3 more cutting-edge startups". He has been given the title “Chief Guru" in Uniphore.

“While John’s monetary investment is certainly important to the company, it is his vast and varied experience building a leading IT company that adds incalculable value to Uniphore," said Sachdev.

Sachdev, who was also selected as one of the 10 “Next Generation Leaders" in 2016 by Time magazine for “Building a Phone That Can Understand Almost Any Language", plans to use these funds to deepen core research driving product enhancement, upgrade its customer service infrastructure, and expand it sales to cater to newer geographies.

In March 2016, Sachdev was selected an “Innovator under 35" by Mint and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review, published by MIT. Mint and MIT Technology Review first teamed up on 1 October 2015 to identify Indian citizens under the age of 35 working on innovations that promise to shape the coming decades. The third edition will be held on 8-9 March 2018 in New Delhi (emtech.livemint.com), and Mint is already inviting nominations.

Eight winners, including Sachdev, had made it to the India edition of the “Innovators Under 35" list in 2016. All innovators automatically became finalists for the global Innovators Under 35 list by MIT Technology Review.

In May 2015, Uniphore had raised an unspecified amount of money from investors, including Infosys Ltd co-founder S. ‘Kris’ Gopalakrishnan and others in its Series A round of fund-raising. Existing investors IDG Ventures India; Indian Angel Network; Ray Stata, co-founder and chairman of Analog Devices Inc.; and YourNest Angel Fund also took part in the round. With Chamber investing, Uniphore has closed its Series B round of funding.

Uniphore offers a suite of speech authentication and recognition products, which help government authorities and corporate entities reach rural customers by interacting with them in vernacular languages.

Sachdev’s journey started in early 2007 when, after graduation, he along with one of his friends Ravi Saraogi went to the incubation centre at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, seeking to create a location-based mobile anti-theft application. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, co-chairman of the incubation cell, helped them redefine the problem. Inspired by this, the two travelled in rural Tamil Nadu to figure out what people were doing with mobile devices.

They found that though there was no infrastructure, every household had a mobile phone. However, because of the lack of English literacy and other digital skills, the people in rural areas were not using mobiles to access public services or the internet. The biggest problem was the unavailability of these services in local languages, according to Sachdev, who realized that vernacular speech is the lowest common denominator in human-machine interaction, which can be used to bridge the digital divide.

In 2008, Sachdev co-founded Uniphore, which primarily offers three products: Akeira, a virtual assistant, amVoice, for voice biometrics, and auMina, for speech analytics. Akeira can talk on phone, IVR (interactive voice response) and computer.

Over the next 15-16 months, Sachdev and Saraogi tapped academic research available in this area and worked with companies that were already conducting research in the field, and created a speech authentication and speech recognition program capable of interacting with humans in local languages.

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