Learning To Be Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable: OmniSpeech Founder Dr. Carol Espy-Wilson On Mogul Watch

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz

This is one in a Moguldom original series that shines the light on the founders featured on MogulWatch, a comprehensive list of startups that have received venture capitalist funding. Find out how much money they have received from whom, and news and data about their company. 

Can you hear me now?

Hearing speech clearly in a noisy environment is a common challenge for cell phone users. Attempting to stay connected on the go is as familiar to most adults as eating dinner. No matter how much you pay for your iPhone or Samsung, at some point, you’ll be competing with background noise when you’re outside a closed environment.

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OmniSpeech was created in 2009 to suppress transient sounds during phone calls. Founded by Prof. Carol Espy-Wilson at the University of Maryland, OmniSpeech has won awards for its technology from Honda, the National Science Foundation and other organizations.

The software technology company hopes to revolutionize the enhancement of voice communication in speech-enabled apps and digital mobile devices.

Its technology is used in a smartwatch that was developed by TCL Alcatel and sold in Europe. OmniSpeech is working on getting exposure for its AI-based voice suppression algorithm, Dr. Espy-Wilson told Moguldom. And in the next five years, the company hopes to perfect its technology for hearing aids.

The company promotes a software-only speech extraction solution that provides high voice quality to single-microphone mobile devices.

“Your mobile device should carry your words, not the latest Beyoncé track bumpin’ in the background,” the OmniSpeech website says in its marketing material.

OmniSpeech has the potential to be a unicorn, said Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital in a MarieClaire interview earlier this year. Backstage is a seed-round investor in the company.

Dr. Espy-Wilson earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University and a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT.

As a Black woman in a male-dominated industry, she said she has learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable. She shared with Moguldom her path to starting OmniSpeech and what the next five years look like for her company.

Carol Espy-Wilson, founder and CTO of OmniSpeech. Photo provided by OmniSpeech

We’re going to keep innovating and seeing how we can fill a void that’s out there involving speech and sound.” — Carol Espy-Wilson, founder and CTO of OmniSpeech

Moguldom: Why did you start OmniSpeech?

Dr. Carol Espy-Wilson: I became interested in noise problems while attending a workshop at NSF. People from various companies discussed issues with deploying speech technology over VOIP and dealing with everyday noise. Because of my training at MIT where we focused on understanding what’s unique about speech and understanding how it is produced. I could use my knowledge to deal with removing noise to help improve voice communications. Many engineers treat speech like it’s any other signal when it is not. As a professor, I had a couple of Ph.D. students who did dissertations in this area, and I had a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard for a year where I could put all of it together into a solution. The dean of my college asked me to present at a research review event where they invited CEOs and VCs. I received an overwhelming response from people. They liked the way the solution sounded and what the technology could do. The accelerator team on our campus approached me, and things took off from there. I was already thinking about trying to get somebody else to license it and run with it. Then I thought, nobody else is going to be as passionate about this technology as I am, and I have the talent here on the campus who can help me build the product. Our twin girls had gone off to college. Our son who was in middle school at the time was very focused on his academics. So, I said, “You know I think I can do this. I have the time now.” Nobody else would be as passionate about it as me, and so I did it. I started the company.

Moguldom: You’re rare because there’s not that many people of color in this space, let alone a Black woman. What is it like being a Black woman creating innovative tools in an area where few people have knowledge?

Dr. Carol Espy-Wilson:  You know one of the things I can say is that to get a doctorate — I have my doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT– you have to be willing to work hard and also have to be passionate about what you’re doing. You have to know it’s your calling because it’s not easy in this area particularly when most of the people around you don’t look like you. You will run into hostility. There will be people who think you should not be there, and I had my share of experiences like that. You must have confidence in yourself, and for me my spiritual grounding was very important, knowing that God loves me as much as he loves anybody else and that He’ll fight battles I can’t. I’m not in a room to fight. I just believe in myself, and I believe in Him. Some of the groups I was a part of at MIT never had a woman or an African American before. You can imagine what that was like. You have to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You’re going to be in many situations where you don’t see anyone who looks like you. You must learn how to still thrive in that environment along with making sure you have the support systems in place to help you stay on that path. I know some African American women had been in the Ph.D. program at MIT in electrical engineering before me but who had left before completing. There were some at MIT while I was there who had gone. However, I was the one who was the first African American woman to get a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT, and that speaks volumes because those women were brilliant too. Once you get through that type of experience, you can get on the other side of it, to become a professor. I think as an African American female professor, I am very sensitive to the challenges of students, especially people of color and women because I’ve been there.

I think being successful in that domain and being a full professor, doing collaborations with people at your university and other universities and presenting your talks and being at conferences, because part of it is PR work, gives you the confidence to step out there. I think those things supported me in believing I could make this technology work. I had heard all the statistics — nine out of 10 companies are going to fail. I can’t say we have made it yet, but I feel like whether OmniSpeech takes off and we become this huge company or not, this was a great experience. I have learned so much about how this business world works and how decisions get made.

Moguldom:  What are some of your notable wins?

Dr. Carol Espy-Wilson: Our technology is in a smartwatch developed by TCL Alcatel which is sold in Europe. We also made a pivot because of machine learning — artificial intelligence. It has changed many things that are happening. We developed an artificial intelligence-based voice suppression algorithm that is working well. I have to say it can work much better than the traditional algorithm and so now we are trying to get that technology out there. Not only can it deal with dynamic noise, which our traditional algorithm could as well, but, even transient sounds, like somebody crunching up paper. There’s no pattern to somebody typing. These transient sounds challenge traditional algorithms. Our solution solves this problem.

Moguldom:  How much money have you raised in capital?

Dr. Carol Espy-Wilson:   We’ve raised between $3 million and $4 million dollars through angel investors and in grants.

Moguldom: How many people are on your team today?

Dr. Carol Espy-Wilson: I have four engineers. I have a CEO; I’m a CTO and then an office manager.

Moguldom:  What are your thoughts on building a good team?

Dr. Carol Espy-Wilson:  In my case, you must have people with specific expertise. They really must have a strong understanding of digital processing. Also, I make sure to have people with experience in optimizing code and turning floating point code into fixed-point code because those are the skills needed to commercialize the technology that’s going to be embedded in devices. Another thing I looked for were people who had been there and done that. One of my guys came from Texas Instruments, so he already had much experience putting things on a DSP.  Another team member had worked at a speech codec company for more than 10 years, and again he had experience putting things on DSPs. (Speech codec or voice codec is a hardware circuit that converts the spoken word into digital code and vice versa.) I have to say three of the four engineers started with me in 2012, and they’re still with me today. The fourth person is a recent hire. I work very closely with the team because some of them did not have speech-specific knowledge. I sit with each of them individually and then we have group meetings, so we feel more like a family.

Moguldom:  What do the next five years look like for OmniSpeech?

Dr. Carol Espy-Wilson:  Well, I hope that by that time we have perfected this technology for hearing aids. We have a proposal for the National Science Foundation right now. We have a hearing aid company that wants to work with us regarding helping us to develop a technology to put within their hearing aids. I am hoping we will have something on the market even before five years from now. There are other things we have considered, such as developing our own voice over IP platform. Or, maybe we’ll go more into speech analytics. We’re going to keep innovating and seeing how we can fill a void that’s out there involving speech and sound.