Start-up of the Week / Automated Phone Translation

Lexifone wants to make you an instant polyglot with its automated telephone translation service.

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In the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series of books, the Babel fish is a wondrous creature that sits inside the user’s ear and translates any language in the cosmos. What used to be a science fiction fantasy may soon be available on your phone.

Lexifone, an Israeli company founded in January 2010, is developing an "automated phone interpreter," according to its chief executive, Ike Sagie. "We want to enable you to call Brazil, converse in your mother tongue and be understood, thanks to the best translation service possible," Sagie says. The product is based on existing technologies, such as Nuance speech recognition software, but the company has done some tweaking and integrating of its own. "We've done a lot of linguistic optimization and mathematical treatment in order for the voice and context to be clear and the call understandable," says Sagie.

Lexifone's product uses Cloud computing, so it is available from any smartphone, dumb-phone or even landline. The user calls a local access phone number, available in around 100 countries, dials the desired person and the call is placed using the translation service. Each party hears the other person’s voice for up to 10 seconds before hearing the translation. "Currently, we are translating English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese and very soon, Russian. We'll also have Hebrew a little while later," says Sagie.

"It's surprising, but 85 percent of the world's population doesn't know English," he says. "The translation experience we offer opens doors. It's a similar experience to that of an interpreter, but the flesh and blood versions costs three dollars a minute, and we're 15 to 40 cents."

The price per minute includes both the conversation and the translation. An additional benefit is that an automated interpreter is available around the clock, and can be trusted to keep the conversation strictly confidential.

Lexifone offers its service directly to customers, allowing them to purchase translation credits from its website. Its main target though is telecommunications companies, which can offer its translation services as an added value service to their customers. It is currently in talks with the British telecommunications company BT, the American government and others. An Android application is coming soon.

Lexifone started out at the Hi-Center, a business accelerator in Haifa, and is still supported by the Office of the Chief Scientist at the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. It has eight employees, and has so far registered three patents and raised $2 million from strategic investors, which Sagie has dubbed "clever cash." The company is in the midst of another fundraising round and has secured $7 million of the desired $15 million.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks on the phone with Israeli voters in his party headquarters, Tel Aviv, Jan. 17, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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