Dublin-based SoapBox Labs has successfully raised €1.2m in seed funding, with the children’s speech technology company now seeking expansion in Ireland and the US.
A recipe of one trip to a VC meet-up, one rainy day and one poor turnout helped cook up the perfect storm for an Irish start-up last summer.
Held at Dogpatch Labs, Astia Angels’ venture showcase was a workshop held in parallel with Inspirefest last June. SoapBox Labs, a start-up building speech technology specifically for young children, was one of the companies in attendance and now, seven months on, it is reaping the rewards.
Raising seed funding of €1.2m, it has attracted investment from Elkstone; Enterprise Ireland’s High-Potential Start-up Fund (HPSU); a consortium of private investors from Ireland, the US and Asia; as well as Astia Angels, the latter noting the luck involved.
“It was raining that day, and despite receiving some 80 or so RSVPs from entrepreneurs for this workshop event, only about 20 showed up,” said Victoria Pettibone, MD of Astia Angels.
That meant that Dr Patricia Scanlon, founder of SoapBox Labs, walked into a workshop with a 1:2 ratio of investors to entrepreneurs: goldmine.
SoapBox Labs uses deep neural net-based speech recognition technology to assess children’s speech in real-world noise environments. This solution easily integrates into third-party apps and web services, enabling a huge range of applications from childhood literacy and language learning through to voice control in gaming.
Astia Angels was interested and, once news of a funding round emerged, it swooped in.
“We were drawn to SoapBox Labs because of the smart and accomplished CEO; the impressive progress she had been making since we first met her in July; what we see to be an attractive technology and a large market; and her very smart business strategy overall,” said Pettibone.
“[We] met SoapBox Labs at the Astia Showcase at Inspirefest 2016,” said Astia Angels CEO Sharon Vosmek. “And we plan to be back with our chequebooks this year.”
The company was founded by Scanlon, formerly of Bell Labs, after she watched her daughter interact with mobile devices.
She noted that apps and web services for children lacked accurate speech recognition capabilities, particularly in noisy environments such as homes and schools, which motivated her to start developing a solution to this problem.
“Fostering entrepreneurship is a priority for Enterprise Ireland, and companies like Soapbox Labs are an important part of accelerating the development of sustainable new business,” said Orla Battersby, manager of Enterprise Ireland’s HPSU division.
“SoapBox is a great example of entrepreneurship, whereby Patricia and the team are progressing the business concept to investable business, with strong employment and growth potential in the future. We look forward to working with the company to achieve further growth and success both in Ireland and overseas.”
SoapBox has a team focused on speech technology, cloud-based architectures and front-end computing, with its eight staff – spread across the US and Ireland – expected to double on the back of this investment.
Calling the investment “extremely timely”, Scanlon said a huge surge in interest around voice-enabled technology interfaces adds to the appeal of her company.
“[The investment] will enable us to accelerate our product development roadmap and cement our position as a world leader in speech technology for children,” she said.
Declan Magee from Elkstone added: “SoapBox Labs is a highly innovative Dublin-based start-up addressing a significant gap in the speech technology market, building a robust solution for children’s speech assessment and recognition. We look forward to supporting Patricia and the team as they scale internationally.”