Building The Business: Whispp
Building the Business with your voice: be heard!
Imagine yourself being in a restaurant. There is music playing, and people are talking amicably. You are listening to conversations, smiling politely but not saying much. Whenever you want to join the discussion, people keep asking you to repeat yourself: “we didn’t hear you. What did you say?” Voice disorders such as stuttering of paralyzed vocal cords can significantly impact social lives: it’s challenging to get yourself heard if you have a voice disorder.
Joris Castermans is one of those people who had a mildly severe stutter in his youth. In 2018 he had an idea. When stuttering, people whisper, it helps them to speak more fluently, but it’s also more silent, and it may feel a bit awkward. So, the concept for Whispp was born: an app based on speech-to-speech AI technology to help people with voice disorders be heard through a naturally synthesized voice – not only for stuttering problems but also for voice disorders such as vocal cord paralysis, for example.
The beginning of the start-up Whispp
‘I used to have a mildly severe stutter. I ran into quite a few things as a child, for example, with social contacts and self-confidence. It was quite hard for me to speak. With AI speech technology developing, I had an idea. If you stutter, whispering helps you to lessen the stuttering. However, you quickly encounter another problem: if you speak softly, people still can’t hear you that well. Whispp helps with this: it transfers your whispering via AI speech technology into audible and natural speech. Someone can also use it for other voice disorders. For example, people with throat cancer, paralyzed vocal cord(s), or even Parkinson’s or ALS. Especially in public, it’s hard to speak. Not because people are shy but because they can’t do so physically. Whispp provides an app on your phone, a small microphone, and a speaker. It makes it easier to speak and listen via our technology.’
‘We are the only company worldwide who is doing this. We created unique datasets and unique architectures to train our AI models. As a result, our deep learning models are massive. Many speech technologies are available, but they are mostly text-to-speech or speech-to-text. Our technology is audio-to-audio based and real-time. We enrich whispering by giving it a voice, including the intended prosody: it includes intonation, emphasis, and the rhythm of your whispers. This way, the AI voice also contains your emotions.’
‘I dream that every smartphone contains our Whispp app. Then I will have fulfilled my mission. I want to reach all people who might benefit from our solution. I’m very ambitious to make this a success, but that’s sometimes challenging.’
Challenges while building the business
‘Within a start-up, you live funding round to funding round. If you do something complex, the horizons are broad: development, testing, and trials take a lot of time. However, we have been able to make good progress. We now have our minimum viable product, a simpler version of what we anticipate. I want the technical process to go faster, but developing a new solution takes time.’
‘I am also a single founder. In hindsight, I would have liked a partner from the beginning to discuss the next steps in the process. Fortunately, my CTO Akash recently became my business partner. Another critical aspect of building a start-up is getting the right people to do the right things. Luckily, I have acquired a great team of researchers, developers, and engineers. ‘
Three takeaways for future founders
1. Patient awareness
‘It’s crucial to listen to your patient and involve them from the beginning. Then, you know what they need and can brainstorm how that would look.’
2. Think big, start small.
‘It’s super important to focus on creating a minimum viable product as soon as possible. Build it, then test it. Fail fast and learn fast. Sometimes it takes work to know where to start if you have a big vision. Start with the things that are valuable but cost relatively less effort. It’s important to validate the product-market fit. It helps you to gain commercial interest, and you can use that to develop your product further and help people.’
3. Do your funding research.
‘The Netherlands is a great country for start-ups. The government encourages it, and many governmental grants are out there. That’s amazing, and I’m very grateful for the help I could receive from the Dutch government. The next step for Whispp is to think more globally; that requires a different mindset, but is a nice challenge.’
In conclusion, Joris says: “The most important thing for me is to help the users. I feel delighted when I have conversations with our current users, who tell me that it’s much easier to have a conversation now. It is why I am so dedicated to Whispp: to help people with voice disorders and hear those stories.”
Joris Castermans – CEO
Originally an industrial designer, I worked as an innovation consultant, business developer and alliance manager in IT and telecom. Based on my own experience of stuttering and interest in technology I founded Whispp.
Worldwide 50 million people stutter severely or suffer from a voice disorder. This often has a major impact on their lives. Therefore it is my mission to enable these people to speak freely and empower them in their daily lives and work.