Entrepreneurship can come from all places. And just as Skype launched Estonia into the forefront of technological start-up innovation, a new company based primarily in Armenia hopes to bring the Caucasus start-up scene into the global spot-light.
If it succeeds in doing so, it could spell an end to Powerpoint: nobody’s favourite presentation tool. The company – Voiceboard – is creating a presentation platform that incorporates different voice recognition platforms and Microsoft’s Kinect – the technology used for body motion control of Xbox games – to give presenters the ability to control presentations through vocal commands and gestures.
Currently Voiceboard is expanding its Armenian office and just starting to offer a demo product to customers. It signed up its first customer in March and hopes to have the first edition out in June. Initially the product will only have voice control features with gestures to be added in at a later date.
The company has grown significantly in a short period of time in order to get to this point. It has grown from four under-employed engineers brainstorming in a living-room to a company with offices in Bulgaria and Armenia, as well as a separate entity in the USA.
“We were sitting in my living room with a whiteboard thinking about getting into IT consultancy and brainstorming,” says Nigel Sharp co-founder of Lionsharp, the company behind Voiceboard. “We thought: ‘It’s so annoying to have to get up from sofa and write something and then the board would get filled up and we’d have to take a picture of it, wipe it clean and start again. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just control everything from here digitally?’”
Development started and the start-up secured a series of opportunities. First it won a competition, organised in conjunction with Microsoft’s Armenian Innovation Center – to go work in a business accelerator in Bulgaria called Eleven. The company then got a chance to demonstrate its presentation tools at TEDx – a popular series of lectures on science and technology. The start-up also had some success at the Microsoft Imagine Cup – an international innovation competition for technology.
“TEDx is a fantastic platform to get the word out. We did our first ever presentation there and were getting phone calls from investors from a week after that,” he says. “A month later and we had concrete offers on the table.”
Sharp attributes some of the success the country had to the start-up scene in Armenia. The country poses significant problems – particularly around areas like international security, potential visas for Armenians to visit other countries, a lack of financial backers and significant red-tape when forming a company. However, it also provides a skilled pool of labour at a low cost that is interested in experimenting in the IT sector and not afraid to take on the risks associated with entrepreneurship.
“I found that young Armenians are ready to do a bit more to choose their opportunities,” says Sharp. “My co-founders are 20-21 and they’re throwing away a job that has a salary to come found a start-up.”
Although Sharp worries about the potential geo-political situation – with Armenia allying itself with Russia and rumours flying about the resumption of a decade-plus long war with Azerbaijan over the semi-autonomous province of Nagorno Karabagh – he remains confident in both his economy and the wider opportunities available in Armenia.
“Armenia is aligning itself with Russia in formal treaties as well as informally in things such as the Eurovision Song Contest,” he says. “It does raise concerns for a company like ours which is now mothered in the USA.”
“But there is huge potential. Collaborative entrepreneurship should be happening here,” he adds. “Guys with good ideas and management skills should be bringing those into Armenia. There are plenty of good ideas but they need backing, organisation, which is not always a strong point.”
If Voiceboard can revolutionise business presentations in much the same way Skype changed international online communication, it would put Armenia on the map and could start a flood of investors searching for the next big technological solution. Who said that messing with an Xbox Kinect would never get you anywhere?
Forbes (www.forbes.com), May 30, 2014