How synthetic intelligence app ELSA founder received Google’s funding


The coronavirus has sparked a revolution in schooling, pushing colleges and establishments on-line and driving new demand for e-learning apps.

One amongst them is ELSA, a man-made intelligence (AI)-powered language platform designed to assist non-native English learners enhance their speech and pronunciation through brief, app-based classes.

Beneath the pandemic, the Google-backed firm — which makes use of machine studying to coach spoken English particularly — has hit round 11 million customers and tapped new markets as worldwide lockdowns have prompted a brand new want for tech-based studying options.

Vu Van, co-founder and CEO of AI-powered English language app ELSA.


However when Vietnamese entrepreneur Vu Van based the corporate in 2015, it was out of a complete totally different necessity.

A billion-person downside

Van nonetheless remembers struggling to search out her voice.

Having relocated to the U.S. from her native Vietnam some years earlier than, first for research then for work, she ceaselessly discovered herself missing the boldness to talk out, regardless of being fluent in English.

It was an issue shared by her non-native friends. Issues over mispronunciation held them again in her Stanford MBA class and, later, administration consulting work, typically main them to be missed or, worse nonetheless, mentioned Van, mistrusted.

To talk confidently and fluently in order that different folks can perceive you, that may be mounted.

Vu Van

co-founder and CEO, ELSA

And if it was a difficulty for them, it was a difficulty for a lot of others, too. Of the roughly 1.5 billion English audio system globally, the World Financial Discussion board estimates over 1 billion are non-native or studying English as a second language.

So Van determined to do one thing about it, dreaming up a tech-enabled instrument that would precisely detect customers’ damaged English and supply easy-to-follow options at a fraction of the price of a tutor.

“To get an ideal American accent or British accent, that is very laborious. However to talk confidently and fluently in order that different folks can perceive you, that may be mounted. And if there’s loads of profit in doing so, then why not?” she instructed CNBC Make It.

Discovering a co-founder

Nonetheless, with no AI or machine studying expertise of her personal, Van knew she had her work minimize out making her imaginative and prescient a actuality.

Having stop her consulting job, she spent the following six months looking for a technical co-founder, chatting with “mainly each AI voice recognition professional within the Bay space” to gauge their curiosity and acquire their insights.

Vu Van, co-founder and CEO of AI-powered English language talking app ELSA.


“My strategy was quite simple: Daily I simply want to speak to 5 folks. I do not care who they’re so long as I can get connections after which these 5 folks will introduce me to a different 5 folks,” she mentioned.

Van’s search finally led her to Germany, then-host to the world’s largest voice recognition expertise convention, after a technical professor suggested her “if you happen to do not discover anyone there, then you definately may as nicely shut the corporate down.”

A gathering of minds

There, amongst a gathering of three,000 specialists, Van met Xavier Anguera, a high scientist who, as she put it, “had been in analysis for manner too lengthy and was itching for that influence.”

Inside weeks, he’d agreed to affix her, quickly leaving his household in Portugal and relocating to Van’s “tiny” San Francisco residence to emphasize take a look at the partnership and construct out their thought.

We mentioned if we do not kill one another by the tip of the three months then I believe we could be okay.

Vu Van

co-founder and CEO, ELSA

It was a course of that might require complete honesty, with “all of the hardest conversations being had early on,” similar to agreeing on salaries and fairness splits, acknowledged Van, who had collated a guidelines of inquiries to ask with the assistance of her fellow founder mates.

“We mentioned if we do not kill one another by the tip of the three months then I believe we could be okay,” she recalled.

Going viral

However the excessive stakes strategy paid off. With Anguera in place as co-founder and chief expertise officer, the pair instantly set to work constructing a prototype; inputting information from non-native English audio system and benchmarking it towards commonplace American English.

For Van, that meant hitting the bottom in her native Vietnam to assist prepare the AI towards a broad set of non-native English audio system, from bus drivers to boardroom executives.

English language app ELSA gives customers with suggestions on they good their talking and pronunciation.


Nevertheless, the true turning level got here a number of months later, when ELSA received South by Southwest’s 2016 start-up competitors, inflicting the app to go viral, amassing 30,000 customers inside 24 hours, and granting the group entry to consumer information from the world over.

“The objective in the beginning was accumulating information, so the quicker we are able to get there the quicker we are able to prepare our AI,” mentioned Van.

Successful Google’s backing

We had been very impressed by Vu and Xavier’s conviction in fixing an actual downside.

Peng T. Ong

co-founder and managing associate, Monk’s Hill Ventures

“ELSA was one in every of our first investments in Vietnam the place we had been very impressed by Vu and Xavier’s conviction in fixing an actual downside for over 1.5 billion English learners,” Monk’s Hill Ventures’ co-founder and managing associate Peng T. Ong instructed CNBC Make It through e-mail.

That vote of confidence was bolstered in 2019, when backing from Google’s AI-focused Gradient Ventures took complete funding raised to greater than $12 million and granted ELSA entry to Google’s group of technical workers to assist construct out its backend infrastructure.

Surging beneath the pandemic

The enhance got here simply months earlier than the coronavirus pandemic overturned schooling and supercharged the expansion of on-line instruments.

ELSA — which operates a freemium mannequin that offers customers full entry to over 1,000 programs for round $3-$6 per thirty days, relying on their bundle — has since seen consumer numbers surge “three-to-four instances” on a month-to-month foundation, in response to Van.

That progress will not be solely from ELSA’s typical customers, but additionally from colleges and companies adapting to new methods of educating. The corporate has now partnered with dozens of faculties and enterprises throughout Vietnam and India, in addition to Brazil and Ukraine, because it expands into the business-to-business market (B2B).

“Covid actually opened up a section that’s new for us,” mentioned Van. “There is a paradigm shift amongst mother and father that there is a totally different manner of studying. As a substitute of at all times having to ship their youngsters to a language studying middle or a college, they’ll depend on expertise. We journey on the good thing about that.”

Constructing for the longer term

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