The mouth's where the money is

Last updated 05:00 16/08/2014

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Thor Russell created a speech recognition software as his final engineering project at the University of Canterbury in 2001. More than 10 years later, his website teaches the fundamentals of English as a second language to people around the world.

Russell obtained funding through the Canterbury Economic Development Fund to refine his speech recognition software after finishing his degree.

The idea was to track the pronunciation of people learning English as a second language to help them spot mistakes and improve.

The software breaks sounds into frequencies and then analyses patterns to then give personal feedback to the learner.

Russell says that when he started, "pretty much no-one else was doing it".

But with more than a billion people wanting to learn English worldwide and the explosion of social media, the market soon became crowded.

Russell's partner Jessica Lin joined the company at the start of 2011 and helped take the concept further to teach all the fundamentals of English speech, including basic English grammar, conversations, education and learning, business communication and job interviews, airlines and hotels.

"Pronunciation was too specific a market," Russell says.

Lin's native language is Mandarin but she's been living in New Zealand since high school.

With a background in statistical modelling and graphic design, she helped develop a new algorithm for speech analysis. was number 4 on well-respected rating website TopTenREVIEWS last year and had hundreds of thousands of customers over the last few years.

This is impressive considering the low success rate for university projects turned into businesses.

UC Innovators manager Rachel Wright says that most ventures created at university fail.

However, a portion of the ones who fail go on and their next company is more successful.

"They learn a lot in those initial stages and university is a good place to fail," Wright says.

The UC innovator had a couple of success stories in the last year, with two students getting the support of angel investors to promote apps.

Wright says raising capital is the most difficult thing for student companies and some run out of money.

For, raising capital and taking the company to the next level is also a challenge.

Russell is working on a phone app and looking at ways to integrate his product with big corporations, schools and language institutes.

"The majority of people still go through a school or an institute to learn English," Lin says.

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The pair did not want to disclose revenue figures, but say the company pays them both a salary. They are now looking to grow internationally and are talking to local investors.

About half of the site's customers live in English-speaking countries, mostly in the United States. The other half live in non English-speaking countries all over the world.

Lin says the learning method is interactive and fun. "We believe in learning through playing."

Activities include spelling and rearranging words, having a conversation with the computer and games such as Save the Castle, Escape the Shark and Spell it Right.

Russell says success has not been a straight line, and running your own business is "always a lot more difficult than you expect".

- BusinessDay

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