Dr. Patricia Scanlon is the founder and CEO of SoapBox Labs, an award-winning voice tech for kids company established in Dublin, Ireland, in 2013. Patricia holds a Ph.D. and has over 20 years of experience working in speech recognition technology, including at Bell Labs and IBM. Patricia has been granted 3 patents, with two pending. She is an acclaimed TEDx speaker, and in 2018 was named one of Forbes “Top 50 Women in Tech” globally.
In an exclusive interview with AsiaTechDaily, Patricia Scanlon says:
I like to do yoga, breathwork meditation, go for walks in the countryside and have downtime with family and friends as often as possible. Staying connected with people keeps me motivated and reduces stress.
One of the mistakes founders tend to make is thinking that it’s going to be easy to build their dream product or company. Startups require a lot of hard work, and sometimes, the pace can be unrelenting.
Thinking too small or locally can also be detrimental to startups.
That said, working on a startup can also be exciting and very rewarding.
Read on to know more about Patricia Scanlon and her journey.
Please tell me about your personal background, and What motivated you to get started with your company?
Patricia Scanlon: I am an engineer with over 20 years of experience and a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence and Voice Technology.
I am also a parent. 7 years ago, I downloaded a learning to read app on an iPad for my 3-year-old daughter that had come recommended by experts.
My daughter played with the app for a few days, but I quickly realized she had not successfully learned the sounds and words the app was trying to teach her. Reflecting on this problem, I realized what was missing – a voice technology component that would ‘give the computer ears’ to listen as she read aloud. It would assess her ability to recall the sounds and words and assess her pronunciation, which is the core component of learning to read or a language.
I had spent my whole professional career working in the area of speech recognition. Still, that experience with my daughter made me realize that digital reading or language learning products without voice technology would be completely limited in their ability to teach kids autonomously without an adult present.
I also realized that the voice technology on the market had all been built modeling adult voices, behaviors, and language and therefore did not work well for kids’ voices.
What was missing from the market was a voice technology solution built from the ground up, specifically for kids that could continuously and invisibly assess their real reading and language learning progress. That was my lightbulb moment, and when I started SoapBox Labs.
What is your current main product, and can you share any previous product pivot story to the current product?
Patricia Scanlon: SoapBox Labs award-winning voice technology for kids powers immersive play and learning experiences, including literacy and language learning tools, for 2 to 12-year-old kids.
Modeled on kids’ speech, language, and behaviors, our technology is proprietary and built from the ground up to be the world’s most accurate, private, and age-appropriate voice technology for kids.
How much money have you raised in total so far? When was the recent funding round?
Patricia Scanlon: Total raised: $11.4M
Latest funding round: $6.5M USD, raised in April 2020.
How have you attracted users, and with what strategy have you grown your company from the start to now?
Patricia Scanlon: Customers come to SoapBox Labs because of our reputation for delivering the most accurate and private voice technology solution for kids from 2 to 12 years old.
Customers sometimes experiment with off-the-shelf existing voice tech solutions from the big tech companies which have typically been built modeling adult voices, language, and behaviors. When they get mediocre or poor results, they realize the need for a specifically built solution for kids’ voices, environments, behaviors, and privacy needs, and they come to us.
Our clients usually come to us because of our reputation as world leaders in this field, successful PR campaigns, and thanks to our research and industry collaborations with universities like MIT Media Lab and the Florida Centre for Reading Research at Florida State University in the US.
What do most startups get wrong about marketing in general?
Patricia Scanlon: Most startups target their technology solutions at a wide range of vertical markets. For SoapBox Labs, the key to our success to date has been our focus on two primary kid-focused markets – education and entertainment.
What were the internal decision processes in determining when to begin fundraising, and what were the logistics for this? And how many investors have you met so far, and how did you meet these investors and which channels worked best for you?
Patricia Scanlon: We decided to start fundraising late last year to capitalize on the opportunities we saw to accelerate our expansion into the US and other global markets. We closed our Series A in early 2020.
SoapBox Labs has received private funding from both Irish and international investors, and public funding from prestigious deep tech-focused European programs like Horizon 2020. Investors in our seed round also invested in our Series A, a powerful vote of confidence in the company.
What are the biggest challenges and obstacles that you have faced in the process of fundraising? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
Patricia Scanlon: SoapBox Labs was founded in 2013 before voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, Google, and Baidu Assistants were launched.
The future importance of voice technology was not clear to many investors back then, so it was challenging to find the right investors who shared our vision of a future where voice technology would become part of kids’ everyday lives.
If I had to start over, I would have been more selective in the investors we approached to avoid wasting time during the fundraising process.
What are your milestones for the next round? And what are your goals for the future?
Patricia Scanlon: SoapBox Lab’s future plans include rolling out our full suite of voice technology solutions in multiple languages and geographies and delivering our suite of solutions on cost-effective, low power consumption, high processing capable, silicon embedded chips for the smart toy market.
How do you plan to expand globally?
Patricia Scanlon: SoapBox Labs is expanding in the US right now, Asia will follow in the coming months. A key to our growth has been the speech tech talent. We’ve been able to attract to the company from all over the world. We currently have 11 different nationalities on our team.
Expanding globally also means listening closely to the needs of our target audience. Our commitment to developing close and collaborative relationships with our customers, and potential customers, has helped to accelerate our US expansion in 2020.
What are the most common mistakes companies make with global expansion?
Patricia Scanlon: Resources are always tight when a company is expanding rapidly, so it’s important to make sure they’re not stretched too thinly across geographic markets. Targeted, focused rollouts are key to scaling effectively and globally.
How do you handle this COVID-19 outbreak situation for your company’s survival in the future?
Patricia Scanlon: SoapBox transformed quickly and seamlessly into a fully remote company when COVID hit, and our productivity has remained high thanks to strong team culture, and our open and effective internal communication channels.
Because we voice-enable reading and language tools, transforming them from passive into interactive experiences for kids, we’ve seen a huge increase in our technology during COVID, particularly from edtech companies offering English language learning or literacy tools. These companies are looking for innovative ways to support kids, their parents, and their teachers as they adapt to remote learning practices and assessments. Voice technology offers them the perfect solution.
What are the most common mistakes founders make when they start a company?
Patricia Scanlon: One of the mistakes founders tend to make is thinking that it’s going to be easy to build their dream product or company. Startups require a lot of hard work, and sometimes, the pace can be unrelenting. Thinking too small or locally can also be detrimental to startups. That said, working on a startup can also be exciting and very rewarding.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? And What advice do you have for someone who is interested in doing similar things like yours or in a similar direction?
Patricia Scanlon: My advice is-
- Pay attention to the details; it’s always a winning strategy
- Find and recruit the very best people on the planet to work with you on what you’re building
How do you keep yourself motivated every day?
Patricia Scanlon: I like to do yoga, breathwork meditation, go for walks in the countryside and have downtime with family and friends as often as possible. Staying connected with people keeps me motivated and reduces stress.
What are the one or two things that you would do differently to improve your life if you could go back to 10 years ago?
Patricia Scanlon: Stop doubting myself, trust my gut instincts.
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