If you’re intimidated by the prospect of giving a speech, going through a job interview or doing a wedding toast, a Seattle startup called Yoodli might have just the thing: an AI-enabled software platform that analyzes your delivery and gives you tips for improvement — in a non-judgmental way.
Today the venture is coming out of stealth mode, opening up the waitlist for early access to their beta product and announcing a $1 million pre-seed funding round from Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Madrona Venture Group.
Yoodli is a spinout from the incubator program at the institute, also known as AI2. Two of the founders — Varun Puri and Esha Joshi — are AI2 entrepreneurs-in-residence. The third founder is Ehsan Hoque, co-director of the Rochester Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Rochester.
All three are drawing upon their personal experience as they take the leap into the startup world. Puri, for example, grew up in India, ran special projects at Alphabet and led Africa operations for a GoogleX connectivity initiative. He saw plenty of instances where whip-smart techies didn’t get the recognition they deserved because they struggled to communicate effectively.
“The reason I started this was to help that kid back home in India or in Kenya get access to the opportunities that they may not otherwise get access to because of the way they speak or how they present something, regardless of their technical skills,” he told GeekWire. “That’s definitely the North Star goal.”
Joshi said the issue can be particularly daunting for women in tech.
“As a female engineer in a male-dominated industry, I felt like I had to try even harder for people to take me seriously,” Joshi, who spent several years at Apple and is Yoodli’s chief technology officer, said in a news release. “The nerves and doubt before a presentation can be crushing, and the feeling of successfully expressing yourself in front of an audience is a huge confidence booster. Our platform takes you from the nerves to the confident persona you need to achieve your goals.”
Hoque has decades of research experience building AI interfaces to improve workforce skills. One project that’s particularly pertinent to Yoodli uses AI to help healthcare professionals prepare for end-of-life conversations with patients.
Yoodli’s software platform records users as they deliver their presentations, and then points out where they could speak more clearly, cut back on the “ums” and other filler words, and improve their use of eye contact and gestures. Users can also solicit feedback from colleagues and get connected to an expert coach.
Versions of the software can be customized for a wide range of applications. “They help people prepare for any conversation of substance, be it to speak with a journalist, a salary negotiation, a job interview or a tough date,” Puri said.
Puri acknowledged that he used the software to prepare for his interview with GeekWire. “It gives me a lot of feedback on my verbal and non-verbal communication: my posture, gestures, tone, pitch, intonation, when I go a little fast, where I emphasize things and so forth.,” he said. “We are still testing out various elements of speech that would be worthwhile giving feedback on.”
Until now, the Yoodli team has been testing early prototypes with just a few users. As of today, the team is opening up the wait list for people to sign up for the beta test. “Right now, we’re just trying to optimize for the learnings and experimentation,” Puri said. He expects a commercial product to become available in early 2022.
Yoodli may sound suspiciously like Hooli, the fictitious tech company from the HBO series “Silicon Valley” — but Puri cites a different source for the name..
“Yoodli is a play on ‘yodel,’ which is a voice exercise used by most speech coaches,” he said in an email. “We think Yoodli has a fun and catchy ring and represents our playful company culture (try saying Yoodli quickly three times, you’ll end up smiling). We’re helping people overcome their biggest fear, so the brand has to sound and feel welcoming. In fact, we call our employees yoodlers.”
And the ranks of the yoodlers are growing, thanks in part to the $1 million boost. “I won’t get into numbers, because people are still in the middle of joining,” Puri said.
“We’re trying to find amazing AI engineers and full-stack developers,” he said, “and if they’re at all interested in working at the intersection of NLP [natural language processing], speech and computer vision, we’re a small, scrappy and very quickly growing team that’s backed by some big players in the Pacific Northwest.”
Matt McIlwain, Madrona’s managing director, said Yoodli offers “a tremendous opportunity to use AI as a way to improve human social and cognitive skills.”
“We like to back exciting teams from Day One, and this team has the passion, technical and industry experience that inspires us to come to work every day,” McIlwain said. “And give presentations!’
McIlwain and Madrona investor Ishani Ummat lay out their perspective on Yoodli today in a blog post.