Czech Republic spearheads speech research

16. October 2018
“We were there at the inception of this success. Customers all over the world use our technologies,” says Petr Schwarz, the founder and current CTO of Phonexia.
Czech Republic spearheads speech research

It used to be a start-up of six academics, but Phonexia has recently become a globally established player in the field of speech technologies. In the last couple of years, the company has enjoyed a double-digit growth.

From a first contract to a scalable business

Roots of Phonexia’s success in computer speech analysis trace back to the year 2006. At that time, a group of enthusiasts into a new field formed at the Faculty of information technology at the Brno University of Technology. Petr Schwarz with Pavel Matějka came up with a phoneme recognizer, garnering instant attention. When he was approached by a company seeking a commercial licence, he realized the true market potential of this technology. And so Phonexia was born.

The path to a company with global ambitions was not an easy one. Research-based IT specialists had to get used to the business world. Czech state administration helped them in their beginnings by paying for the contract beforehand. “By trusting domestic technologies, the Czech Republic can help start-ups. Thanks to this payment we were able to hire our first developer,” says Schwarz, one of the company’s founders. At that time, he focussed with his colleagues on custom-built products. Nowadays the company concentrates mainly on scalable products.

Still in close contact with the university

There have been several such milestones in the history of the company. “The key for us was hiring our first salesman. As researchers, we had no experience with sales. And when we had to devote ourselves to the business side of things, we didn’t have enough time for enhancing the technology,” says Schwarz.

Then they got a grant which secured financial stability of the company and made possible the first enlargement of the team. Today Schwarz has more than fifty colleagues and plans to hire 20–33 percent employees annually. That’s why the current management is trying to find its new headquarters.

“At the very beginning we didn’t even have a shared space, we worked from our homes or from a hired office on JIC premises, that’s where our first salesman was,” says Schwarz. Only after several years the company moved to premises near the Faculty of information technology in Brno. And it is still a stone’s throw from its alma mater in their current place of business. „We used to run to faculty offices several times a day,” says Schwarz.

There is a reason for that: several important company ambassadors are employed by the faculty – they concentrate on the speech technology research from an academic viewpoint, but they also cooperate with the company’s researchers.

Skilled people are in demand in the South Moravian business ecosystem 

In 2017 the company acquired a new visual identity, discernible at every step in its present headquarters. JIC marketing expert Tomáš Avrat was in charge of finding it, as a part of JIC PLATINN programme for established companies. JIC also played its part in getting the company its current CEO Michal Hrabí. The previous CEO Petr Schwarz kept meeting him at JIC events where his future successor promoted start-ups, including JIC STARCUBE, one of the first Central European accelerators. When Schwarz learned that Hrabí is looking for new work challenges, he got in touch with him immediately. When Hrabí took over his agenda, Schwarz could again fully devote himself to his main interest – enhancing his technologies.

In 2016 the company employed an Indian researcher as a part of the KTPi project funded by JIC and Brno town hall and intended to promote hiring international workers in research companies. Bhargav Pulugundla from Hyderabad University helped to accelerate training of recognizers for new languages and dialects.

“Originally he was meant to stay twelve months, but ultimately he will stay much longer. He likes Brno, he is finishing his Ph.D. here and we count on him to work in our company for three more years,” says the company CTO. 

Speech technologies won’t be the end of it

Company’s growth is facilitated by experienced experts who had the chance to see business success elsewhere. Phonexia got several employees from AVG, the first truly global post-revolutionary company that originated in Brno. And Phonexia has ranked among the globally successful companies for several years. Numerous references bear witness to this fact.

“Our company for instance developed a solution for Spanish Telefonica Moviles, analysing big data from calls in contact centres, and we delivered Invia a tool for checking whether its operators observe their prescribed script. The forensic laboratory of Bundeskriminalamt uses our voice biometry for expert assessment of voice samples,” says Miroslav Jirků, marketing director of Phonexia. The voice biometry so far seems the most perspective in the commercial sector.

But this really doesn’t have to be the end of it. In near future, the company wants to become the preferred European supplier of speech technologies for partners all around the world. “In the long run, we will certainly venture into areas outside the speech technologies. It’s not clear now whether it will be an interaction with computer using just thoughts, or something else,” concludes the company CEO Michal Hrabí.

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