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Five MIT Sloan companies to watch

Entrepreneurism has always thrived at MIT Sloan—and it continues to do so, even in today's economy. Despite the market turmoil that has presented enormous challenges for businesses worldwide, companies like Voxify, InVivo Therapeutics, Julianna Rae, HubSpot, and Visible Measures have all found ways to survive and flourish through the downturn.

VoxifyVoxify - Patrick Nyugen, SM '93

Voxify, Innovating New Markets

Patrick Nguyen, SM '93, and his two co-founders (also MIT alumni) had no industry experience in speech recognition technology when they decided to start their company, Voxify, in 2001. They were simply three entrepreneurs looking for an area of enterprise software that was ripe for taking off, Nguyen recalls. Eight years later, with quarterly revenue on a continuous upswing, a growing client list including Continental Airlines, Rite Aid, and MetroPCS—along with a recent $15 million investment led by Intel Capital—they seem to have done just that.

Built around their patented “Conversation Engine,” the Voxify product is the first to create automated agents with the conversational skills needed to handle even the most complicated customer service calls. “The real challenge with speech,” Nguyen explains, “is that it is a very different medium from the Web. People are very familiar with the Web as a user interface, and a whole population of developers has experience in building websites. But speech is still a relatively new medium, and there are many challenges in designing an application that effectively guides callers to achieve their intended outcome without requiring a human agent.”

In the past, companies tended to crack this problem by doing what Nguyen describes as “throwing bodies”—assembling teams of PhDs and professional services people with specialized expertise. Although this sometimes resulted in good systems, they were very expensive and took years to roll out. Being software engineers at heart, Nguyen and his team streamlined the entire process. By codifying a number of speech best practices and techniques and then building them into a software platform, they were able to automate the process of developing an enterprise-class speech application. This made the process much faster and much less expensive as well.

“It was an opportunity,” says Nguyen, “to take something that had been left in the realm of experts and artists and turn it into something that was much more of a science.” From the very beginning, that focus on simplicity has been the key to the company's success. They landed their first customer, DreamWorks Studios, in 2002, just before raising their first round of venture capital. Since then, the company has never stopped growing. Having moved into the financial space with the insurance giant The Hartford, Voxify is now building a partnership with AT&T—one of the major players in the call center world—and is well on its way to sustainable profitability. “Right now, I would classify ourselves as a mid- to late-stage venture-backed company,” says Nguyen. “However, there is definitely a huge untapped opportunity in the marketplace to grow a $100 million company in terms of revenue in this space.”

Nguyen notes that MIT Sloan played a key role in the company's success every step of the way. “In the beginning stages of a company,” he explains, “you can't afford a CFO, a VP of marketing, or a VP of operations. A startup is like a microcosm of all these disciplines in one concentrated place. Among the founders, you have to perform all of these various roles at once. The only way I was able to accomplish this was through my experience at MIT Sloan.”

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