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Voice, Acoustics and Imagery Tech Upgraded to Mission Critical

by | May 21, 2020

For this special 3 part series on Insights, Azafran Capital Partners shares insights on the future of the venture capital ecosystem, marketplace and fund thesis.

This article will take about 4 minutes to read

About the Series

Azafran Capital Partners is an early-stage venture fund. Their investments ($2M to $8M) focus on companies using deep & machine learning, emphasizing voice, acoustics, and imagery tech in the health, wellness, IoT / automation, and enterprise spaces.

Only a few months ago, managing partner & Opportunity Network member, James Kenefick, was travelling constantly. Meeting with companies and attending conferences around the world. Now, like everyone else, he’s finding new ways of doing business from home

In this three-part series, Kenefick and his colleagues at Azafran Capital Partners, Jock Percy & Martin Fisher, will share their global perspectives on the current state of the investment market, the potential for tech, and the power of the network. 

Part Two (of Three) of this Special Report Series focuses on the technology, markets and research, taking into account new global realities being experienced personally and professionally.

Rather Listen?

This series is accompanied by a podcast discussing the main topics of each Issue.

Technology in Today’s World

Prior to COVID-19 crisis, business markets and technology were driving adoption of these modalities. Now, they are fast becoming Mission Critical.

The function, as well as intelligence, around voice, acoustics and imagery have been the focus of development for years. With the infinite spectrum these modalities offer, the traditional keyboard almost seems archaic.

Attending nearly 100 events, visiting tech hubs from Helsinki to Denver, Toronto to Pittsburgh, Tel Aviv to Berlin and dozens of points in between, our journey over the past 3.5 years has taken us around the globe. This “road less traveled” has enabled us to find unique companies focused on machine learning as well as deep science solutions.

The Tech Perspective

Over the past five years, progress has grown exponentially. Scaling the Internet, computing, programming, storage, using and analyzing stores of data unimaginable even a decade ago. One of the key elements holding back progress for AI & machine learning has been access to the rich data tapestry that voice, acoustics and imagery offer. In effect, turning the single dimension modality of text into a complex and intelligent multi-dimensional data landscape.

One watershed moment was Amazon’s launch of Alexa in 2015. The voice interface spread like wildfire to over 100M households in just a few years, Google, Apple and others followed. This rapid consumer adoption of voice technology pushed developers and manufacturers to deploy voice as an integral component of their product development strategy. Alexa alone is forecasted to reach $18 – $19B in revenue next year. (Wu, 2018)

Imagery as a modality has had a similar flashpoint when compared to voice and acoustics. Imagery technology has rapidly come to the forefront of mainstream development. Take Apple’s acquisition of Emotient for its facial recognition technology as well as Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus with it’s AR/VR technologies as an example. These have been pivotal moments for imagery technology.

Conversely, other hot topic technologies such as robotics and drones have not yet been widely productized or accepted into home and work environments.

The COVID-19 crisis has further accelerated development in these areas. From physical access/entry, to activating hardware, software, as well as sensors, all segments of the industry are prioritizing this transition.

Market Focus and Use Cases

Within our tech focus, we’re looking for companies delivering solutions into the Health & Wellness, IoT, as well as Enterprise markets. 

Below is a high level update on three of our priority market areas:

Healthcare:

AI in healthcare to grow in preparation for future public health risks (Pitchbook

AI has been deployed in the detection, diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19. We believe the virus demonstrates the need for improved AI in healthcare. Several AI models were able to detect the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan based on natural language processing of government healthcare reports and news releases, including those of VC-backed startups BlueDot and Metabiota.

The accuracy of the models’ predictions of COVID-19’s spread weakened over time but proved to be valid alerts. Over the past three months, numerous AI-powered diagnostics have been developed based on CT scan data, including those from Huawei, Ping An and Alibaba. These approaches claim to reduce the time to analyze CT scans for COVID-19 diagnosis to mere seconds.

Focusing on voice, acoustics, and imagery, we’re looking at companies that will change our interactions with healthcare going forward.

Some important use cases that we are investing in are:

  • A solution that listens for vocal patterns such as pitch, tone, rhythm, volume. These serve as powerful data points or “vocal biomarkers.”
  • A hardware/software platform that “sees” and processes your breath patterns. Feeding the results into a machine learning platform, it seeks to diagnose respiratory diseases

The data from these applications help healthcare and clinical teams diagnose a variety of conditions. From chronic respiratory disease (COVID-19) to cognitive disorders, early cancer detection (esp. melanoma) as well as heart attacks.

Internet of Things (IoT)

A Massive Opportunity Exists To Build ‘Picks And Shovels’ For Machine Learning (Forbes)

“Many multi-billion-dollar companies have been built by providing tools to make software development easier and more productive. Venture capitalists like to refer to businesses like these as “pick and shovel” opportunities, a reference to Mark Twain’s famous line: “When everyone is looking for gold, it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.” AI is the most important “gold rush” of our era. To date, the picks and shovels required to support this field remain underdeveloped. This represents a massive opportunity for entrepreneurs.”

– Rob Toews in Forbes, March 2020

From software platforms making neural networks more efficient to devices/sensors providing self-contained functionality with low/no cloud use. The application, as well as the implication of this technology, are significant. A reduction in cost is an additional benefit.

Azafran has already invested in this segment via ACP1 (Fund One) and here are some use cases that we are investing in ACP2:

  • AI-Driven optimizer to make Deep Neural Networks faster, smaller and energy-efficient. From cloud to edge computing.
  • A new and unique data type that encapsulates more information than traditional tensors, vectors as well as floating points. Learning more from 2D and 3D images.
  • A solution that reduces the power consumption of any wireless chip to a fraction of the original chip. Applicable to wireless sensors, data loggers, and consumer electronics.

Enterprise

AI Is Changing Work — and Leaders Need to Adapt (Excerpt from HBR) 

As AI is increasingly incorporated into our workplaces and daily lives, it is poised to fundamentally upend the way we live and work. The stakes are high. AI is an entirely new kind of technology, one that has the ability to anticipate future needs and provide recommendations to its users. For business leaders, that unique capability has the potential to increase employee productivity — by taking on administrative tasks, providing better pricing recommendations to sellers, and streamlining recruitment, to name a few examples. Whether it is workers who are asked to transform their skills and ways of working, or leaders who must rethink everything from resource allocation to workforce training, fundamental economic shifts are never easy. But if AI is to fulfill its promise of improving our work lives and raising living standards, senior leaders must be ready to embrace the challenges ahead.

Source: Harvard Business Review, Martin Fleming, March 24, 2020

This is a broad category with lots of participants. Deploying solutions from HR & talent to customer care, it narrows the field to fewer, high-value opportunities.

Prior to COVID-19 we saw a great opportunity in the hospitality arena. This may return post-COVID, but until then our team is focused on solutions using imagery technology for security, as well as voice technology for automation and efficiency at point-of-sale and call centers.

How AI Factors into the Market

Taking a collaborative approach can determine which parts of a business decision are best suited for AI and which parts need human intervention. 

As Richard Tibbetts, Principal Product Manager for AI at Tableau explains, “The emergence of AI does not mean that an algorithm will tell you how to run a business. The domain experts will help ensure that AI is adopted and trusted in an organization.” Increasing collaboration between technology experts and domain experts encourages knowledge sharing on both sides. 

In an article from McKinsey Quarterly, Cameron Davies, Head of Corporate Decision Sciences at NBCUniversal, shared a use case that involved annual forecasting. They decided to build and surface a set of machine-learning algorithms to help augment the process. In the early stages, they brought in a researcher to contribute to the project. He ended up becoming an evangelist in the business units and trained other people on how to interpret the recommendations. (Source: Tableau Data Trends 2020)

COVID-19 is also prompting companies to adopt AI solutions within call centers. “Consumers prefer communicating on SMS, WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat, and other messaging channels. Brands see better business results compared to the old world of voice,” said LivePerson. “This shock to the system will accelerate brands’ embrace of remote contact centers and work-from-home solutions for their agents. Brands that do this will be able to maintain a sense of normalcy throughout periods of crisis because they’ll be communicating on the same channels consumers use to talk to family and friends. Without all the mess of routing voice calls to remote locations, where agents are dealing with kids or pets in the background.” (Source: VentureBeat | AI)

The Role of Investment in Technology

The developed world is now a connected world. This will only continue to grow as new algorithms, Machine Learning, and embedded AI make networks more effective as well as more efficient. At the same time, a new generation of analogue & digital low power sensors is moving computing to the edge. 

In the next five years, billions of handsfree, always‐on, sensing devices will assist us in our daily lives at home and at work. Controlling our home’s temperature and lights, alerting us to danger, even continuously monitoring our health.

How we utilize this data, optimize this technology, and invest in these companies will play a determinant role in the social and business structure of the future.

James F. Kenefick

Managing Partner at Azafran Capital Partners

Jock Percy

Partner at Azafran Capital Partners

Martin Fisher

Partner at Azafran Capital Partners

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In the final issue of the Special Report Series, Azafran Partners highlight the intrinsic value and importance of combining a founder’s perspective with a global network of experts as principal ingredients for success.

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