“The Czech Republic is an international powerhouse in speech research. We were there right at the very beginning of this global success. Our technologies are used by customers all over the world.”
From first contract to a scalable business
The roots of Brno’s achievement in the field of computer speech analysis date back to 2006. At that time, a group of enthusiasts for this new subject were gathered at the Faculty of Information Technologies of the Brno University of Technology. Petr Schwarz and Pavel Matějka published a phoneme identifier that captured a great deal of attention. When they were contacted by a company interested in obtaining a commercial licence, Petr Schwarz realised that this technology had huge market potential. Thus Phonexia was established.
However, the path towards building a company with global ambitions was not easy. These research-oriented IT specialists had to get to grips with the world of business. Initially, Czech public administration gave them a solid start by paying them in advance for a job it had ordered. “Trust in domestic technology, expressed in this kind of deal, is one way the Czech Republic can help start-ups. With the money fresh on the account we could hire our first developer,” says Schwarz, one of the company’s founders. At that time he and his co-workers were focused mainly on commissioned development work. Today the company primarily specialises in scalable products.
Close contacts with academia persist
A lot of similar milestones were passed as the company’s business progressed. “Hiring the first trader was key. Being researchers, we had no experience with sales. Every moment spent dealing with trade meant time not spent improving the technology,” says Schwarz, who maintains that hiring sales staff untied the developers’ hands.
The first great expansion of the team took place thanks to a grant, which gave financial stability to the company. Today the company has more than fifty employees, and it sees this number increasing by a fifth – or even a third – every year. That’s why the current management is looking around for a new place to set up. “In the early days we didn’t actually have any joint premises; we worked from home, and our first trader worked in a rented office at the JIC premises,” says Schwarz. Only after several years did the company move to premises not far from the Faculty of Information Technology of the Brno University of Technology. Its current headquarters is also just a stone’s throw away from their alma mater. “At one time, we used to pop over to the offices at the faculty several times a day,” says Schwarz. Indeed, at the faculty are several important ambassadors of the company. Their devotion to researching speech technology is solely academic, but they also cooperate with corporate researchers.
Skilful people prosper in the South Moravian business ecosystem
At the current headquarters you get a strong sense of the new visual identity adopted by the company since 2017. The search for a new brand image was overseen as part of the JIC PLATINN programme for well-established companies by the JIC marketing expert Tomáš Avrat. “Most of the company’s employees are technicians – branding is all Greek to us. That’s why I’m happy to have someone experienced to guide us in this field,” says Schwarz.
JIC also played a role in engaging the current CEO of the company, Michal Hrabí. Petr Schwarz, the then CEO, used to meet him at events organised by JIC, where his future successor conducted activities to support start-ups, including JIC STARCUBE, one of the first Central European accelerators. When Schwarz learnt that Hrabí was looking for new work challenges, he contacted him right away. After relinquishing his CEO responsibilities, Schwarz could fully devote himself again to what interested him most – improving technology.
As part of the KTPi scheme, through which JIC (jointly with the Municipal Authority of Brno) aimed to encourage the employment of foreign workers in research companies, an Indian researcher joined the company in 2016. Bhargav Pulugundla from Hyderabad University helped accelerate the training of identifiers for new languages and dialects. “Instead of the originally planned twelve months, it turns out he’ll be staying here much longer. He likes Brno, is completing his doctoral studies here, and we’re counting on him staying at the company for the next three years,” says the CTO, happy with his foreign recruit.
More than just speech technology
The company’s growth is also facilitated by other experienced experts who’ve previously enjoyed business success elsewhere. Several employees came to Phonexia from AVG, the first really global post-Velvet Revolution company, which was also established in Brno. Phonexia has been numbered among globally successful companies for several years now. This fact is also demonstrated by its references. “For example, the company has developed a solution for the Spanish company Telefonica Moviles to analyse big data from calls to contact centres. We provided Invia with a tool for checking whether its operators are complying with the prescribed script. And the forensic laboratory of the German Criminal Police – the Bundeskriminalamt – uses our voice biometry for expert assessment of voice samples,” says the Marketing Director of Phonexia, Miroslav Jirků, giving some examples of projects. Voice biometry in the commercial sector has been the company’s most promising field so far.
The company isn’t intending to stop here, however. In coming years it wants to position itself as the preferred European supplier of speech technologies for partners all over the world. “However, in the longer term, we’ll certainly also be participating in fields outside of speech technology. It’s not certain now whether it’ll be human-computer interaction just through voice, it could be through thoughts or maybe something else,” says the company’s CEO Michal Hrabí.
– turnover growth from 2016 to 2017
– identification accuracy of speaker by voice using company technology
49 million CZK
– company turnover in 2017
Phonexia develops innovative technology for speech analytics and voice biometry. It offers the first speech technology in the world using solely neural networks in order to provide the greatest precision and speed. The Phonexia Speech Platform is able to identify the speaker, language and gender, convert speech into text, or search for particular words, all within a single modular and easily integrable platform. The company deliveries its technology solely through its partners and, jointly with them, creates resulting solutions for clients. The company was established in 2006 as a spin-off from the Faculty of Information Technology at the Brno University of Technology. Since then, it has been providing services to call centres, financial institutions and crime-fighting organisations in more than 60 countries.
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Starting out as a university project, we’ve developed into a company operating on a global scale. Owing to the fact that we’re based at JIC headquarters and have undergone a number of programmes, we’ve always enjoyed quick access to lots of different know-how. We only had to cross the building to get all the answers we needed.