News & Events
VoiceSignal Technologies: An Entrepreneurial Success Story
HARTFORD, Conn. – Thomas Lazay’s entrepreneurial success story began with a simple query: “Do you want to start a company?” Dan Roth, a friend and future business partner, posed that question to Lazay during the winter recess of their senior year at Trinity, when both were pondering life after graduation.
“Well, why not start a company?” thought Lazay ’95, who had majored in computer science but had no concrete post-college plans. And so began a journey of product development, some successful and others not, that ultimately led to the sale of VoiceSignal Technologies Inc., the dominant supplier of speech recognition technology in mobile phones, in August 2007 for $293 million.
|Pictured above, from left to right, are Thomas Lazay '95, Trinity student Scotty
Eckenthal '12, and Computer Science Professor Ralph Morelli.
Lazay, a member of Trinity’s Board of Fellows, told his tale of entrepreneurial fits and starts to a gathering of students participating in the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software (HFOSS) Summer Institute last week. The program is headed by Computer Science Professor Ralph Morelli, (who taught Lazay as a student), and HFOSS Project Director Trishan de Lanerolle.
Lazay told the students, half-joking, that he wasn’t very proficient at computer programming so the idea of getting involved in a start-up company was an idea that held great appeal. Motivated by a cousin who had been partially paralyzed and suffered from bed sores, Lazay’s and Roth’s first effort was the development of an inexpensive hospital bed that would prevent the formation of decubitus ulcers, otherwise known as bed sores.
“That lasted three months,” said Lazay, explaining that in the world of start-ups, “dead ends happen all of the time. We were not visionaries. We fumbled our way through.”
Their next idea was a bit more successful, even if it didn’t lead to riches. Using an elementary form of speech recognition, the duo came up with Lamp Commander, a voice-activated light that a person could turn on and off by speaking to it. After a short and mildly successful run, Lazay and Roth decided to turn their attention to the more lucrative toy market.
Again, Lazay and Roth met with some success using their speech recognition technology, but they soon realized that toys have a short shelf life and that “nine out of 10 toys disappear after their first season.”
They then turned their attention to the growing field of mobile phones and set out to raise venture capital. Lazay told the students that “human networking is one of the most powerful assets” at their disposal. Lazay and Roth managed to raise $8.5 million to develop voice recognition systems for mobile phones. In the process, they hired some of the best experts and researchers in the field and managed to fend off a lawsuit. They overcame other challenges, as well, including figuring out a way to get the mobile phones to respond to voice commands in languages other than English and to different dialects and pronunciations.
Between 2005 and 2007, VoiceSignal Technologies met with great success, and the voice recognition system that Lazay and Roth had developed was widely used. Indeed, by ‘07, hundreds of millions of mobile phones were deployed in dozens of countries using VoiceSignal’s software.
By that time, however, the two partners realized it was time to cash in on their success. They hired Goldman Sachs to negotiate the sale of the company, which was ultimately bought by Nuance Communications in 2007. Since then, Lazay has worked as a consultant and is, once again, pondering his next move.
Regarding his experience as an entrepreneur, Lazay offered the HFOSS students some lessons as they look to the future: make use of personal networking; choose a complementary partner; hire the best; develop excellent communication skills; know when to cut your losses; be paranoid; be persistent; and ignore a one-size-fits-all mentality.