On average, men and women speak roughly 15,000 words per day. We call our friends and family, log into Zoom for meetings with our colleagues, discuss our days with our loved ones, or if you’re like me, you argue with the ref about a bad call they made in the playoffs.
Hospitality, travel, IoT and the auto industry are all on the cusp of leveling-up voice assistant adoption and the monetization of voice. The global voice and speech recognition market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 17.2% from 2019 to reach $26.8 billion by 2025, according to Meticulous Research. Companies like Amazon and Apple will accelerate this growth as they leverage ambient computing capabilities, which will continue to push voice interfaces forward as a primary interface.
As voice technologies become ubiquitous, companies are turning their focus to the value of the data latent in these new channels. Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Nuance is not just about achieving better NLP or voice assistant technology, it’s also about the trove of healthcare data that the conversational AI has collected.
Our voice technologies have not been engineered to confront the messiness of the real world or the cacophony of our actual lives.
Google has monetized every click of your mouse, and the same thing is now happening with voice. Advertisers have found that speak-through conversion rates are higher than click-through conversation rates. Brands need to begin developing voice strategies to reach customers — or risk being left behind.
Voice tech adoption was already on the rise, but with most of the world under lockdown protocol during the COVID-19 pandemic, adoption is set to skyrocket. Nearly 40% of internet users in the U.S. use smart speakers at least monthly in 2020, according to Insider Intelligence.
Yet, there are several fundamental technology barriers keeping us from reaching the full potential of the technology.
By the end of 2020, worldwide shipments of wearable devices rose 27.2% to 153.5 million from a year earlier, but despite all the progress made in voice technologies and their integration in a plethora of end-user devices, they are still largely limited to simple tasks. That is finally starting to change as consumers demand more from these interactions, and voice becomes a more essential interface.
In 2018, in-car shoppers spent $230 billion to order food, coffee, groceries or items to pick up at a store. The auto industry is one of the earliest adopters of voice AI, but in order to really capture voice technology’s true potential, it needs to become a more seamless, truly hands-free experience. Ambient car noise still muddies the signal enough that it keeps users tethered to using their phones.
“Even with its vast local talent, it seems Israel still has many hurdles to overcome in order to become a global fintech hub. [ … ] Having that said, I don’t believe any of these obstacles will prevent Israel from generating disruptive global fintech startups that will become game-changing businesses.”
I wrote that back in 2018, when I was determined to answer whether Israel had the potential to become a global fintech hub. Suffice to say, this prediction from three years ago has become a reality.
In 2019, Israeli fintech startups raised over $1.8 billion; in 2020, they were said to have raised $1.48 billion despite the pandemic. Just in the first quarter of 2021, Israeli fintech startups raised $1.1 billion, according to IVC Research Center and Meitar Law Offices.
It’s then no surprise that Israel now boasts over a dozen fintech unicorns in sectors such as payments, insurtech, lending, banking and more, some of which reached the desired status just in the beginning of 2021 — like Melio and Papaya Global, which raised $110 million and $100 million, respectively.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to invest (both as a venture capitalist and personally) in successful early-stage fintech companies in the U.S., Israel and emerging markets — Alloy, Eave, MoneyLion, Migo, Unit, AcroCharge and more.
The major shifts and growth of fintech globally over these years has been largely due to advanced AI-based technologies, heightened regulatory scrutiny, a more innovative and adaptive approach among financial institutions to build partnerships with fintechs, and, of course, the COVID pandemic, which forced consumers to transact digitally.
The pandemic pushed fintechs to become essential for business survival, acting as the main contributor of the rapid migration to digital payments.
So what is it about Israeli-founded fintech startups that stand out from their scaling neighbors across the pond? Israeli founders first and foremost have brought to the table a distinct perspective and understanding of where the gaps exist within their respective focus industries — whether it was Hippo and Lemonade in the world of property and casualty insurance, Rapyd and Melio in the world of business-to-business payments, or Earnix and Personetics in the world of banking data and analytics.
This is even more compelling given that many of these Israeli founders did not grow within financial services, but rather recognized those gaps, built their know-how around the industry (in some cases by hiring or partnering with industry experts and advisers during their ideation phase, strengthening their knowledge and validation), then sought to build more innovative and customer-focused solutions than most financial institutions can offer.
Having this in mind, it is becoming clearer that the Israeli fintech industry has slowly transitioned into a mature ecosystem with a combination of local talent, which now has expertise from a multitude of local fintechs that have scaled to success; a more global network of banking and insurance partners that have recognized the Israeli fintech disruptors; and the smart fintech -focused venture capital to go along with it. It’s a combination that will continue to set up Israeli fintech founders for success.
In addition, a major contributor to the fintech industry comes from the technological side. It is never enough to reach unicorn status with just the tech on the back end.
What most likely differentiates Israeli fintech from other ecosystems is the strong technological barriers and infrastructure built from the ground up, which then, of course, leads to the ability to be more customized, compliant, secured, etc. If I had to bet on where I believe Israeli fintech startups could become market leaders, I’d go with the following.
Voice technologies have come a long way over the years; where once you knew you were talking to a robot, now financial institutions and applications offer a fully automated experience that sounds and feels just like a company employee.
Israel has shown growing success in the world of voice tech, with companies like Gong.io providing insights for remote sales teams; Bonobo (acquired by Salesforce) offering insights from customer support calls, texts and other interactions; and Voca.ai (acquired by Snapchat) offering an automated support agent to replace the huge costs of maintaining call centers.
Silicon Valley was once one of the most productive regions in the country for the defense industry, churning out chips and technologies that helped the United States overtake the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since then, the region has been known far less for silicon and defense than for the consumer internet products of Google, Facebook and Netflix.
A small number of startups though are attempting to revitalize that important government-industry nexus as the rise of China pushes more defense planners in Washington to double down on America’s technical edge. Vannevar Labs is one of this new crop, and it has hit some new milestones in its quest to displace traditional defense contractors with Silicon Valley entrepreneurial acumen.
I last chatted with the company just as it was debuting in late 2019, having raised a $4.5 million seed. The company has been quiet and heads down the past two years as it developed a product and traction within the defense establishment. Now it’s ready to reveal a bit more of what all that work has culminated in.
First, the company officially launched its Vannevar Decrypt product in January of this year. It’s focused on foreign language natural language processing, organizing overseas data and resources that are collected by the intelligence community and then immediately translating and interpreting those documents for foreign policy decision-makers. CEO and co-founder Brett Granberg said that the product “went from one deployment to a dozen adoptions.”
Second, the company raised a $12 million Series A investment in May from Costanoa Ventures and Point72 with General Catalyst participating. Costanoa and GC co-led the startup’s seed round.
Finally, the company has been on a hiring spree. The team has grown into a crew of 20 employees, and the firm last week brought on Scott Sanders to lead business development. Sanders was one of the earliest employees at Anduril, and had spent several years at the company. Vannevar also added John Doyle, a long-time Palantir employee who was head of its national security business, onto its board according to Granberg. Today, the team is equally split between national security folks and technologists, and he says that the team is set to double this year.
Co-founders Nini Moorhead and Brett Granberg of Vannevar Labs. Photo via Vannevar Labs.
With a few years of hindsight, Granberg says that he has refined what he considers the best model for defense tech startups to break into the hardscrabble market at the Pentagon and across Northern Virginia.
First, there needs to be incredible focus on getting access to actual end users and learning their work. The functions that defense and intelligence personnel perform are completely different from operations in the commercial economy, and trying to translate what works at a large corporation into defense is a fool’s errand. “You need to have both the DNA of understanding new technology and the DNA of deeply understanding a lot of different use cases within DoD,” Granberg said, referencing the Department of Defense.
That’s directly informed how Decrypt has developed over time. “We started focusing on the counter-terrorism space, and as the government moved away from counter-terrorism, we started moving to the foreign actors that were important,” he said. “Once we have our first couple of deployments, we are able to iterate very, very quickly.”
He also strongly eschews a popular view in defense procurement circles that there are “dual-use” technologies that can be used equally well in commercial and defense applications. “Some of the most important mission problems where the government spends the most money and has the most interest,” he explained, are also contexts where commercial off-the-shelf products (dubbed COTS in the industry parlance) are least useful. He says startups targeting defense simply cannot split their bandwidth by also trying to learn commercial use cases.
In fact, he went so far to predict that “you are going to see a lot of companies that have raised a lot of money that will fizzle out in the coming years” because they just can’t nail the dual-use model well.
Second, he argues that defense tech startups need to move beyond the model that each company should work on one platform, and instead move to an organizational model where a company offers multiple products to reach scale. Each product has the potential to reach “a couple of hundred million in revenue” according to Granberg, but it is hard to expand a company’s size if it doesn’t parallelize product development.
To that end, Granberg said that he pushes Vannevar Labs to always be exploring new product lines for growth. “Decrypt is our first product [but]10% of our energy is in new product efforts,” he said. “I can imagine when we are three to four years down the line… it might be 9-10 products.” He said that the one platform approach might have worked for Palantir, which ironically, is the major winner in the defense tech space the last few years. But newer companies like Anduril and Shield AI have been designed around product line expansion.
Finally, noting those other companies, Granberg believes there is something of a collective benefit as each startup makes headway in the defense sector. “There is this theory in our space that we don’t view ourselves as competitors — if one of us does well, we all do well,” he said. Given the varied mission requirements of different agencies and the absolute massive scale of budgets in this field, startups actually have a lot of independent terrain to explore, even if they come up against the big legacy defense contractors on a regular basis.
As for Vannevar Labs, its next goal is to turn its Decrypt product into a program of record, which would guarantee it a certain level of sales and revenue for potentially years into the future. That’s a huge bar to leap, but would be a turning point in the company’s long-term trajectory.