"We started by saying — let’s get the 700 million people in India’s villages", says Umesh Sachdev, co-founder and CEO of Uniphore, a speech analytics solutions company incubated out of IIT-Madras in 2008. Sachdev adds that he wants to see 1 billion people using Uniphore's products in the next 10 years.
Chennai-based Sachdev, 30, is in the news because TIME magazine recently named him in their list of “10 millennials who are changing the world”, mainly for Uniphore's work in helping people use their phones in regional languages. This in turn, helps them access important services like online banking. One of Uniphore’s products is a virtual assistant which can process more than 25 global languages and 150 dialects.
In an interview with Firstpost, Umesh talks about the role technology can play in bringing about social change.
Umesh, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a computer engineer by education, was born and brought up in Delhi. I did my schooling and education in Delhi. I belong to a family where everyone has accumulated degrees, have climbed the corporate ladder, so I don’t come from an entrepreneurial family — broke the mold there. For the last eight years my wife and I have been living in Chennai along with our daughter who is two years old. Outside of work, I am an avid traveller, I like to explore new countries and regions.
Were there any apprehensions when your first started out?
Remember in 2005-07, the startup bug hadn’t bitten the country yet. Two ingredients worked in our favour, in pure hindsight, Ravi and I were lucky as our families were extremely supportive. They didn’t pressure us to take up jobs. They gave us the freedom to try out our ideas and not worry about economic stability. The second, was the ignorance is bliss attitude worked tremendously in our favour. It is also a trend I see in next generation of our entrepreneurs. People don’t realise how hard a problem they are picking up to solve and what will it pay. So to not realise that and jump into it and learn to swim, worked for us. When we started we didn’t start thinking we’d be global. We started by saying let’s get the 700 million people in India’s villages, that is 70 percent of the population. Now we have gone beyond India and are looking at Southeast Asia, Middle-east, etc where there are similar problems and our technology can solve them. So hopefully over a decade, about 1 billion people would be using Uniphore products. Even eight years later there is no competition not only in India but in Asia for Uniphore. So we didn’t realise what we were getting ourselves into. That helped.
On to Uniphore, what is the company about? What were the early challenges you faced?
The company is built around speech recognition. The products we make are around this. The first is Akeira, is a virtual assistant. So basically instead of talking to call centers, you’d be talking to apps to solve your problems. However, Akeira supports over 70 global languages. The second is the one that does the most revenue for us, it is an analytics product, auMina. So when you call a call center, you get a standard response for feedback. We have come up with a software where companies are able to go through all the calls, do analytics on them to improve on their response to customers, delighting them further. The third is voice biometrics amVoice, unlike a finger or eye recognition, in voice biometrics you don’t require a hardware. Somebody who has a phone or computer just saying any phrases you are able to do voice authentication which is good enough for a bank to approve financial transaction. Our products are aimed at enterprises. One of the biggest challenge has been to make people believe that such a product can exist and that it works.
How has the technology impacted the lives of your customers?
One of things I like is that we have a very direct impact on the people. The technology has been applied to a few government schemes, there is a big push in the rural areas to open bank accounts and do transactions. Part of the reasons they can’t operate is there are no branches, people have to actually use their fingerprint on a kirana store, whereas with this technology it is easy to dial a number and say in their native language that the amount they’d like to transfer to the person they are buying from. All the infrastructure that is basically missing in villages like healthcare, banking, we are now connecting people to. The fact that people can speak in their native tongue, the language barrier has been lowered for them to use it.
How did you get interested in using technology to make a positive impact?
We didn’t start with the idea that we have a great technology, lets find a solution, we started with the problem. The thing we wanted to do was to address the digital divide. There is a huge population which is not a part of the digital infrastructure. We wanted to create platforms and product which enable bridge this divide. Our initial idea was to set up a human enables call center. But we only realised it is going to have serious scalability problems, so we said let’s have a computer calling instead of human calling. Today in countries like India, we don’t have an option but use technology to solve problems. We can’t take same amount of time to develop as a nation as the US did. The diversity India has, our products are surely going to bring a lot more people into the digital mainstream.
How do you and your family feel about the recognition from TIME?
Obviously they are delighted. My mom didn’t even realise we’d done something big. They are inundated with phone calls. Any recognition is great, milestones are for us to pause and celebrate. It makes us recognise that there is hard work but there is success (as well). These are very humbling occasions. At the same time because we’ve done this for around 10 years, at the end of the day recognition is great but we’ve to go back and cater to your customers and make sure they are delighted with what we provide. So keep your head down and keep doing what you are doing and do it better.
Updated Date: Jun 18, 2016 15:08 PM