The age of AI: supercharging Europe’s tech transformation

Business Planet travels to Dublin to see how one innovative firm’s AI tech is offering children immersive play and learning experiences through voice recognition technology.

Machines that make learning child’s play

Irish company SoapBox Labs says it has developed the world’s most accurate and safe voice recognition technology for children. Founded in 2013, the company uses artificial intelligence tailored to help kids play and learn more immersively using their own voices.

“While people are probably familiar with speech recognition for adults, in voice assistance or in smart speakers, our technology has been built specifically for children, and that’s modelling their voices and speech behaviours using state of the art AI technology,”explains SoapBox Labs CEO, Patricia Scanlon.

The company’s technology has attracted the tech giants. The firm is already working with Microsoft to boost child literacy and tackle problems surrounding child data privacy.

Its technology was also recently chosen by “Reach Every Reader, a US based literacy project backed by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, through their ChanZuckerberg Initiative.

Going forward the company aims to be the leading provider of voice tech and so-called kid-tech, in both smart toys and education.

“We already have 27 global commercial licenses and we’ve scaled the platform into multiple languages, so our main markets now are education, and that’s literacy and language learning globally, and now we are moving into off-line, voice enabling for smart toys and robotics.”

Fostering Europe’s tech revolution

Soapbox Labs received a grant of nearly 1.5 million euros from the European Innovation Council Accelerator. It seeks to give top class innovators and entrepreneurs the financial rocket fuel they need to take off, while also putting them on the right path to starting and running a successful business.

“We can provide up to 2.5 million euros in grant funding, up to 15 million euros in equity funding, obviously networking, coaching and then leveraging in other private investors, explains Professor Mark Ferguson, the Chair of the European Innovation Council Advisory Board. He adds: “We’re looking for people with game changing ideas, that are going to create world-beating companies, great for Europeans, [with a] really dedicated team, fantastic technology, that’s going to disrupt and create good markets.”

Responsible robots

Despite the benefits and opportunities connected with the rise of such game-changing technology, the advent of Artificial Intelligence has some people concerned. With that in mind, the European Commission presented its approach to AI and robotics in 2018 with its Communication on AI for Europe. This seeks to recognise the strategic importance of these technologies as key drivers of economic development and business, while also emphasising that AI needs to be developed in a responsible way in accordance with EU values.

In the next few weeks, the European Commission will present its latest proposals for further developing the EU’s approach to artificial intelligence.

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland, is the Chair of the European Innovation Council Advisory Board. Business Planet spoke to him about the EIC Accelerator and how it supports entrepreneurs and innovative small businesses.

What is unique about the EIC accelerator?

“So the EIC accelerator is different from all of the other accelerators that are out there. Essentially, we are interested in companies with a high risk, a risk where perhaps the private investor may not yet go. And those companies need to be really disruptive. They need to be disrupting existing markets, or have a completely new product, and we are willing to invest there. We will want to crowd in subsequent investment. We’ll want to de-risk it, and we’ll want to make sure there’s a very secure business plan, and we’ll want to make sure the technology and the science is good, but we are willing to take a higher risk than others – and that’s the real difference.”

How do you support innovators and entrepreneurs?

“Well, there are various things. First of all, there is a grant application, you can get up to 2.5 million euros, and equity up to 15 million euros. So that’s the investment part of the portfolio. Then, of course, there is networking and consultancy, so you can get help from a whole range of consultants across Europe who will provide coaching in whatever area the company needs, and then there’s networking with larger corporates… So that’s essentially what the EIC is doing. And its real objective is to invest in disruptive technologies that will be fantastic businesses for Europe, that will hopefully solve a lot of societal problems and that will grow in scale to be large companies. I mean, I often paraphrase it by saying, those companies are solving relevant problems in responsible ways.”

How do you choose companies?

“I think you have to have a good business plan. You have to have the good technology. You have to have the right team, so that team can take the business and grow it. You need to know what you’re asking for, your plans. So that’s basically the kind of tips. There’s no restriction. I mean, this is about building the businesses for Europe. We want Europeans to get the success out of these companies, both in their economy and in terms of what the companies are doing. And we want those companies to be world leading…so my strong recommendation, is read the form, answer the questions, feel free to network and talk with people. Make an application. You will get feedback, and that’s what I would advise people to do.”

Useful facts

  • Emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and big data, are transforming the way we live and work.
  • AI has the potential to provide solutions to different societal challenges, including climate change, treating chronic diseases or solving problems with literacy. At the same time, it also creates new opportunities for innovative businesses.
  • AI depends greatly on the usage of big data. But the opportunities coming from it are not being seized: 66% of companies say they are getting little to no value from their data, and only 1% of data gathered by companies is analysed. Also only one in five enterprises is highly digitised.
  • The European Innovation Council (EIC) Accelerator supports top-class innovators, entrepreneurs, small companies and scientists with funding opportunities and acceleration services in different areas, including sustainability, transport, energy, health, AI.
  • Supporting high-risk, high-potential small and medium-sized enterprises and innovators is crucial to help them develop and bring to market new innovative products, services and business models that can drive economic growth.

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