When talk isn't cheap
Wireless voice service company wins $50,000 Haas contest for inexpensive platforms
By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs
But it isn't cheap. As the competition among wireless carriers gets more intense, the ability to provide a distinctive service at a reasonable price is becoming critical in separating the winners from the losers.
That's where Anthony Joseph, an assistant professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department, and Nibha Aggarwal, a '97 Haas Business School graduate, come in. Joseph, Aggarwal and a team of young wireless wizards nabbed first place in this year's Haas School of Business's business plan competition. The winning company - SkyFlow Inc. - is a startup business that develops private-label voice portals for other corporations. The $50,000 prize has helped these young entrepreneurs raise real money from a global assortment of investors and is turning their company into a true success.
"We're developing wireless infrastructure services to enable businesses to offer voice access to information," said Joseph, who specializes in distributed computing and wireless communications. "You can use your cell phone to access information and services from the Web, your e-mail, your voice-activated phone book, or just ordinary voicemail telephone service. SkyFlow is developing a unique service platform and computer network to enable new, creative voice-activated applications."
New-fangled interfaces for voice communication have the wireless industry topsy turvey right now. The voice-activated phone book, for one, is working to make voice the standard interface for tomorrow's generation of high technology devices, such as set-top boxes. Voice recognition allows set-top users who do not want to use a keyboard to use a microphone to select channels, browse the Web and compose e-mails on their television sets. And as the wireless industry swells to an estimated 100 million subscribers in the United States this year, set-tops capable of processing voice commands are likely to be all the rage.
"SkyFlow has a few bells and whistles that the other companies vying for first prize didn't have," Joseph said. The loudest whistle: it offers voice portals with some advanced technological capabilities that no one can beat.
"Once a company has designed its voice service application, they have to buy the technology and add people to operate the systems. This may cost millions of dollars," Joseph said. "SkyFlow will host these services on our platforms for much less. We remove a lot of the risk of offering the service and greatly increase the speed of bringing these applications live. That applies to Web sites, telephone service, people placing orders by phone, obtaining directions, almost anything a business wants to offer. The companies create their own applications, then turn them over to us to host on our platform.
"If an airline wants to provide flight information to customers on the Internet, they will contract with someone to use voice recognition, but then they have to figure out where to put their application," Joseph said. "There are companies like Exodus who host Web services, and the same trend is happening in the voice services arena."
Aggarwal and Joseph came up with the idea for the company a year ago, wrote a business plan and began speaking with customers to hone the concept. Within hours of winning the Haas business plan competition, SkyFlow secured $500,000 in seed funding. In August, they won Hewlett Packard's prestigious Garage E-Scholarship $150,000 award, one of 10 awarded worldwide this year. The award was sponsored in part by the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs.
Now SkyFlow is wrapping up its "series A" funding of another $3 million. The company started operations this spring, initially at the Berkeley Business Incubator, but has since moved to its current location in Emeryville.
"The Haas business plan competition is a great contest," Aggarwal said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for Cal students to develop and improve their plans and secure venture capital for their startup companies."
Now in its second year with a total of $70,000 in prizes, the Haas business plan competition parallels similar competitions on campuses around the country. Sponsored by several venture capitalists and high tech companies, the competition attracted 182 business plans this spring. Sixty venture capitalists donated their time to serve as judges and more than 20 Haas Business School students volunteered to help run this year's competition.
The ground rules are simple: Teams must include at least one member affiliated with Berkeley; startups that have raised more than $250,000 in seed money aren't eligible; and business plans are judged on how original, marketable and fundable they are.
Last year's contest was fairly unsensational by comparison. Forty-five teams competed for $10,000 in prize money. The winner was Timbre Technologies, which designed quality-control software for semiconductor fabrication plants. But by early this year, Timbre and six other teams had received more than $35 million in venture funds. And at the rate SkyFlow is going, the Haas contest is likely to draw quite a crowd this year.
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