This month’s start-ups harness the power of AI for improved voice assistant technology, as well as a language tutor for kids
Until the coronavirus pandemic drove classroom education around the world to a screeching halt, it was an uphill struggle to persuade venture capitalists to invest in education apps, according to Ivan Crewkov, co-founder of MyBuddy.AI, a voice-based English tutor for kids.
“If you’re not a parent, you don’t get it,” he explains. “Plus, when you’re working with children, you have two customers to appeal to – the child and the parents – which makes sales more tricky.”
Now, as parents and teachers grapple with new remote-learning solutions, edtech has become hot property and, in April, MyBuddy.AI received over $1m in seed funding from Russian firm Leta Capital. But the full story behind the three-year-old company’s growth is more of a slow burn, and the tech behind the app and the pedigree of its co-founders was already attracting significant angel investment.
Crewkov and his fellow co-founder Dima Plotnikov moved with their families from Russia to Silicon Valley in 2014 with their former company, CubicAI, a voice assistant that had the misfortune to launch just before the release of Amazon Echo. After selling off the hardware part of that company, the pair examined how they could apply their voice expertise to another venture – and it was their children who provided inspiration.
We’re trying to understand a three-year-old girl from China or Mexico who is saying her first words in English
Crewkov’s daughter, who had attended a Russian preschool, was struggling to speak English after transferring to an English-speaking school. “Four months later, she still wasn’t able to speak a word of English and it turns out that this is a common issue for kids in immigrant communities,” he says.
Crewkov adds that in his adopted home state of California, up to 60% of children start as English learners. He says that there are around 500m such children around the globe, trying to learn English, but who can’t reach fluency because they lack practice speaking the language.
Human tutors charging around $20 a lesson are a costly solution, so MyBuddy.AI positions itself as an accessible ‘virtual’ alternative. A month’s subscription to the app costs, on average, the same price as single tutoring sessions (which can vary from territory to territory).
MyBuddy.AI is a mobile-based voice assistant with a graphic cartoon interface that children between four and ten can converse with to improve their English. Learning is predominately game-based, with children treating the Buddy like a virtual pet, according to Crewkov. The app spent over a year in development – longer than anticipated – because accent handling and working around the way young children speak is a challenge, even in the age of the algorithm.
“We’re trying to understand a three-year-old girl from China or Mexico who is saying her first worlds in English. There’s no off-the-shelf voice recognition system that can do this,” he says.
While the app is driven by conversational AI, it’s the adoptive learning aspect of it that Crewkov believes will elevate it beyond a mobile game to virtual tutor status. “Adoptive learning will enable Buddy to offer learning plans for each student and adopt them as the student progresses, so that it becomes more tailored to an individual’s learning needs,” he explains, adding that a major upgrade in June will also offer spatial repetition, which is a proven technique for learning vocabulary.
The app will be able to implement adoptive learning following the start-up’s January acquisition of Edwin – a Google Assistant and Y Combinator-backed start-up also based in California. Edwin was founded by another former Muscovite and tech entrepreneur, Dmitry Stavisky. Previously an international vice-president at productivity app Evernote, Stanvisky has now come on board as a third co-founder.
The edtech start-up reports that business has grown tenfold over the past year, reaching 20,000 paying students. It’s testament to the lack of EFL (English as a foreign language) tutor alternatives that around 20% of its users are adults.
MACHINE LEARNING Ivan Crewkov is the co-founder of MyBuddy.AI, an app that was inspired by his daughter’s struggles to learn English in preschool
In April, the company also launched a free ‘health expedition’ course, designed to help children speak English, as well as learn some simple hygiene rules to observe during the Covid-19 pandemic from the WHO and CDC.
Electronic companies, telcos and schools have all expressed interest in partnerships with Buddy. Meanwhile, the investment from Leta Capital will go towards product development and launching the app in new regions.
This article first appearedin the July 2020 issue of FEED magazine.