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Former SpeechWorks chief executive out raising money for Xtone, startup that wants to speech-enable mobile apps

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 25, 2012 09:19 AM

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In the days before Siri, one of the most innovative speech startups around was Boston's SpeechWorks International. The company mainly focused on bringing speech recognition to the phone systems of customers like Amtrak, United Airlines, and FedEx, helping handle calls more efficiently. But the company was also working on "multi-modal" technologies for mobile devices way back in 2001, thinking about how we might speak commands as well as punch buttons on our phones. (This was before most phones had touchable screens, young readers.) SpeechWorks went public in an IPO that saw its shares triple on the first day of trading, and then was acquired in 2003 for $132 million by the Burlington company that grew into Nuance Communications.

Now, the former CEO of SpeechWorks, Stuart Patterson, is out talking to local venture capital firms to raise money for another speech-related business. Xtone, founded in Virginia in 2004, wants to help developers of mobile apps add a layer of "Siri-like" speech functionality to them. Patterson tells me that once he closes the company's next round, he'll be setting up shop in Boston and hiring staff up here; Xtone already has several consultants in the area — some of them former SpeechWorks employees.

"We're not in core speech technology," says Patterson, who became CEO of Xtone in January. "We're building a platform to help customers develop new services that use this new modality of speech with their mobile devices, which has been proven by the success of Siri." He says the Xtone platform will let app developers add speech functionality without having to develop it differently for different mobile operating systems, like Apple and Android: "It's a write once, run anywhere platform." (The simplicity of using Xtone's platform to script conversations that users can have with an app will make Xtone more appealing for developers, he asserts, than trying to work with different APIs to take advantage of the built-in speech recognition capabilities of different operating systems.)

In a way, Xtone sounds like it's trying to position itself as a next-generation SpeechWorks: where big companies once relied on speech recognition to help them handle incoming calls more cheaply, now they can use speech-driven mobile apps to deliver more efficient customer service. "We think this intelligent device known as the smartphone will be able to handle these web-based transactions really successfully with speech, and that will completely replace the old IVR world." (IVR stands for "interactive voice response" system, the sort of thing that SpeechWorks used to build.)

Xtone raised $5 million in 2008, and Patterson says he helped raise a small bridge round after he joined the company. One local venture capitalist, whose firm had backed Vlingo, a mobile speech recognition startup from ex-SpeechWorks CTO Mike Phillips, confirmed that his firm is in the midst of doing due diligence on the company.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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