Stories of people who are fleeing their home countries to escape economic uncertainty and conflict have sadly become all too common these days, especially in the Arab world.
The Syrian Civil War and the resultant migrant crisis has seen many in the Levantine country leave for European shores, with just the bare necessities, risking their lives crossing seas and mountains into new lives. Lives that could be nothing like the ones they had at home.
Lojain Jibawi could easily have been one of those many people. Once a budding dentist in the fervid student scene of Damascus, he was always a dreamer and a talented one at that.
When he wasn’t busy giving a lecture on surgery at Damascus University, that too as a fresh graduate, you could find him working on a high-tech 3D skull, or writing for the first-ever Arabic-only journal of modern dentistry.
But as much as he liked dentistry and Syria, Jibawi, who is also a self-taught programmer, was eager to move into uncharted territory. He had always wanted to travel the world, and explore other technologies and careers. With the Arab Spring giving way to the Syrian Civil War, there was not much of a choice either.
It’s not surprising that Dubai was his next stop on this quest in 2013, as it has for many Syrian professionals in the recent past.
And also because, as Jibawi puts it, if you can offer something that nobody has ever before, Dubai is the ideal place for it to take off.
That something, which no one has ever made before, is the concept of Arabic Speech Recognition, for which Jibawi founded Votek—a software company with its heart in Syria, and mind and body in Dubai, as he likes to say.
Votek specializes in developing automated and innovative solutions based on Arabic Speech Recognition.
The firm makes products across verticals, but its initial foray was into the B2B space. Here, the company has built mobile applications and other technologies that can be applied to various domains, serving everyone from large enterprises to governmental entities.
One such app is MRHE Guru, a voice-recognition-based housing app that understands and responds to the Emirati-dialect of Arabic, providing users with information on housing initiatives, and advice on the housing services that apply to each case.
Jibawi says that the company has already served roughly 20,000 users and worked closely with more than 15 governmental entities, banks, and universities in the region.
While some of them are piloting his technology, he says, others have already implemented the technology to stimulate customer engagement, build loyalty, and achieve a healthy bottom-line.
Hear Me Out
Bootstrapped as a self-funded startup, Votek, much like any other budding startup has been on the lookout for further exposure and capital to push things further along.
Bit by bit, Jibawi has managed to nail down the exposure bit. He has made waves at competitions in Finland, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Denmark, where his pitch drew praise and support.
It has also helped that his timing coincided with larger, global tech trends. Voice-operated virtual assistants just started catching on when Votek was trying to break through.
Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri for instance, as well as Amazon’s sharp-witted Echo, which responds to voice commands to play audiobooks and release weather information.
Votek too, Jibawi explains, is currently researching ways to provide voice assistant services for home and office appliances, in Arabic. Everyone will need smart assistance at some point, he reasons, and a language breakthrough for Arabic users can revolutionize multiple sectors in the region including healthcare, auto, etc.
But it doesn’t end here.
Speech recognition and the technologies derived from it could also potentially reinvent language education and learning for children with speech impediments, Jibawi reasons.
In Dubai, Jibawi found that many Arab-born children face multiple problems with speaking their native language.
One reason is that many of them attend international schools and that English has become a sort of lingua franca given its universal use and appeal. Altogether, it has made their vocabulary of Arabic words astonishingly limited.
He recalls asking himself: “What if, instead of customizing apps for corporate clients, we apply the same technology to something as simple as a toy, and address this language gap?”
Working off this idea, and modeling it on the same speech engine, Jibawi came up with the first Arabic language all-smart educational toy ever. He named it Loujee, a name that he thought could be easily pronounced by everyone.
The app-controlled toy comes in three different sizes and depends on a mobile device (an iPhone or an iPad) to bring it to life. As children talk and play, Loujee responds to any touch and action, engaging in a two-way conversation. The software can process queries in 10 different Arabic dialects, grasping colloquialisms and intricacies of each linguistic variant.
At the same time, the smart toy can crack jokes, narrate Arabic bedtime stories, brush up their geography, and enrich them with general knowledge.
What the startup is trying to achieve with Loujee, is one step further than speech recognition. It’s called speech understanding, and very simply put, it recognizes deeper meanings and syntaxes—not just individual words or word strings—using a sophisticated backend.
“It’s about adding a smart layer to speech recognition.”
Not Toying About
Starting off with Loujee wasn’t easy, though. Jibawi recalls with little pleasure the long slog of looking for manufacturers who could nail it with the prototype. Unsatisfied, he even tried to do it himself but didn’t get far.
Finally, he found that one Chinese manufacturer who could easily match the standards he was looking at. An agreement with Virgin Megastore, the UAE-based retailer of all things cool, completed the factory-to-shop circle.
Loujee, he says, was a retail hit. Within a few months, it had gone out of stock, and this without any extravagant marketing spends. Jibawi explains that one reason it went off the shelves as fast as it did was that it appealed to both the user and the buyer.
“On one hand, having a friend with the brain of a computer, a sort of know-it-all robot friend, sent children literally into a frenzy,” he says.
And on the other hand, it appealed to their parents too, the one with the wallets, who understand that learning a “language empowers in plenty of unique ways.”
Parents are not the only ones opening up their wallets to Votek and its products.
The company recently attracted a stunning $1 million round of investment from Elder-Marini Group (EM), a firm that claims to invest in emerging businesses from the region, help them scale, and then take them to global markets.
“We are so obsessed with speed today that we never really slow down to think of the small things that could create a measurable impact,” says Mahmoud Elder, CEO at EM.
“Which is counterintuitive. In physics, speed is ignorant of direction, and it doesn’t actually lead to progress,” he continues in his marked New York accent, having been raised and educated in the US.
Elder, who has been promoting new Arab talent in fashion, art, and tech for the past five years, believes that Loujee is a product that can cross boundaries and markets.
“I immediately saw a huge potential for this small tool, considering the Middle East demographics and how the purchasing power is pushing through new paradigms,” he says, explaining his reasons to invest in Votek.
Elder though is persistent to make it clear to us that this is not a mere financial investment—but rather an individual effort to support the Arab community he belongs to, which has been at the margins of tech revolution till now.
Jibawi echoes the sentiment.
Technology is transforming the lives of vulnerable people, and as someone who left a country in conflict, he only knows too well that technology has some if not all the answers.
“We would like to connect learning with entertainment in a way that it will spark discoveries, broaden imagination and improve literacy,” he says.
Jibawi also claims that his technology can help those who suffer from language-based learning disabilities, the symptoms of which are typically having a short attention span and difficulties with keeping track of a conversation.
“Speech understanding can unleash human potential in so many ways. It’s extraordinary what you can achieve by only harnessing the power of voice.”