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There You Go Again!

June 17, 2011

That’s what America’s most charismatic President used to say! I didn’t necessarily agree with Reagan’s politics, but I sure did like his presentation. Nuance’s Paul Ricci is kind of the inverse of that; a lot of people don’t like him, but it’s hard to argue with his politics (although I will later in this blog…)
Nuance does seem to perform remarkably well. They have an amazing patent position, and are quite highly valued by almost any financial metric you can apply, including their market cap (over $6B and near an all-time high), their revenue multiplier (5-6 range), as well as P/E over 2000 (and although fairly meaningless, it does show they are finally profitable using GAAP rather than their modified accounting policies!!!!)

I’ve never met Ricci. I’ve known a lot of people who have worked for him, with him, and against him. Everybody agrees he’s a tough guy, and I think most would also use words like ruthless and smart. A lot of people might even call him an asshole, and whether true or not, I don’t think he cares about that. He’s a competitive strategy gameplay kind of guy, and he’s done pretty well. However, he has a HUGE challenge being up against the likes of Google, Microsoft, and eventually Apple (let alone the smart little guys like Vlingo, Yap, Loquendo, etc.). But I digress…

I started this blog thinking about Nuance’s recent acquisition of SVOX. And I wanted to congratulate Nuance and Ricci for ACQUIRING SVOX WITHOUT SUING THEM. If I look back a ways (and I can look back VERY FAR!), Nuance (or the company formerly known as Lernout and Hauspie and then Scansoft) has at least 4 embedded speech recognition companies wrapped into it over the years. In rough chronological order: Voice Control Systems (VCS was probably the FIRST embedded speech company and the first and only embedded group to go public), Phillips Embedded Speech Division (I think they had acquired VCS for around $50M), Advanced Recognition Technologies, and Voice Signal Technologies. I believe Ricci was at the helm during the Philips embedded acquisition (this was the one closer to 2000 as opposed to the Philips Medical group a few years ago), ART, and VST. Interestingly, 2 of these 3 were lawsuit acquisitions. There are probably some inside stories about SVOX that I don’t know (e.g. threats of lawsuits??), but it appears that Nuance’s acquisitions of embedded companies are now down to 50% lawsuit driven. Thanks, Paul, you’re moving in the right direction! ;-)

OK, so what’s wrong with suing the companies you want to acquire? It probably does lower their price and reduce competitive bidding. Setting aside the legal and moral issues, there is one huge issue that’s clear- If you want to hold onto your star employees and technologists, you need to treat them well. Everyone understands who the “stars” are – they are the 10% of the workforce that contribute to 90% of the innovation. They are not going to stick around unless they are treated right, and starting off a relationship by calling them thieves is not a good way to court a long term relationship.

For example, there’s been a lot of press lately about the Vlingo/Nuance situation and how Ricci offered the top 3 employee/founders $5M each to sell Vlingo (plus a bundle of money for Vlingo!) Well, Mike Phillips used to be Nuance’s CTO (through acquisition of Speechworks)…so wouldn’t it have been more valuable to KEEP Mike there than BUY him back? The “other” Mike…Mike Cohen is Google’s head of speech. He FOUNDED Nuance (well, the company formerly known as Nuance!) and left to join Google, and of course this caused a lawsuit…think either of the Mike’s (two of the smartest speech technologists in the industry) would ever go back to Nuance? Google has managed to hold onto Cohen, so it’s not just an issue of the best people leaving big companies because “little companies innovate.” I’ve also seen the recent rumor mill about Nuance’s Head of Smart Phone Architecture leaving for Apple…
By the way, you gotta treat customers nicely too! Strong arm tactics on customers and competitors might close short term deals, but I think there are better approaches in the long run.

So it’s the personnel and customer thing that Nuance is missing out on in their competitive gameplay strategy, and my hope is that SVOX’s acquisition represents a significant change in how Nuance does business!

As a point in contrast, Sensory has acquired only one company in our history – Fluent Speech Technologies (and no, we didn’t sue them first.) This was a group that spun out of the former Oregon Graduate Institute back in the 1990’s. We saw a demo of theirs back in 1997-1998, and thought the technology was great. They offered to sell us the speech recognition technology (not the company), so they could focus on animation opportunities, but we had NO INTEREST in that. We wanted the people that made the technology, not the technology itself. That’s how our Oregon office was born; we acquired the company with the people. The office is now about as big as our headquarters (and some of our people in Silicon Valley have even moved up there!) By the way, ALL the technologists that came with that acquisition are still with us after 12 years, and we’ve kept a very friendly relationship with the former OGI as well.

Time for a breather…Yeah, I do long blogs….if you see a short one, which might start appearing, it’s probably a “ghostwriter” helping me out…. ;-)

So let’s look at Nuance’s acquisition of SVOX. Why did Nuance acquire them?

  1. SVOX was for sale. I don’t mean this tongue in cheek. I suspect SVOX proactively approached Nuance (and probably Google and others as well) to buy them. If you look at SVOX’s Board (many of whom are their investors), it’s a bunch of guys that ran retail empires and huge organizations, so they probably got tired (in the midst of the economic downturn of the last few years) of waiting.
  2. SVOX was affordable. I don’t mean cheap, and I don’t know yet what Nuance paid, but my guess is Nuance probably paid in the 4-7x sales range. SVOX as a wildass guess was doing in the $20-$30M year range, so Nuance might have paid $80-$210M…quite affordable for Nuance. Since Nuance is traded at around 5-6x sales, that’s not too bad from a revenue multiplier perspective, and I’d guess SVOX has been profitable so the deal should be accretive to Nuance. If the numbers come out and Nuance paid more than $200M (their prior embedded acquisition of VST was about $300M!), that means there was some serious bidding going on – and probably with Google, Microsoft, or Apple (The Big Guys) in the mix, since they all could have used SVOX technology and patents.
  3. SVOX had Patents. SVOX acquired/merged with Siemens’ speech group a few years back, and with this merger came “60 patent families.” That’s a lot of patents, especially when you add on the patents that SVOX got before and after the merger with Siemens. This will continue to fuel Nuance’s tremendous patent position. My opinion is that it was quite a mistake for the Big Guys – especially Apple- to pass up this combination of talent, technology and patents…they could have easily outbid Nuance !
  4. Customer acquisition. OK, this was probably Nuance’s primary motivation, and probably the reason that Nuance would outbid companies wanting SVOX for “in-house” solutions. SVOX had a lot of deals in automotive and mobile handsets! They were very strong in small-to-medium footprint (1-50MB) TTS, and were making fast inroads with their speech recognition. Nuance loves to buy customers. SVOX had customers.
  5. Keeping Apple and Google from Acquiring SVOX. It’s not often that Apple loses, but I think they lost on this one. SVOX would have been a really cheap way for Apple to make a big move into speech with an in-house technology. It’s going to be hard to grow it all internally, but what a nice bootstrap SVOX would have been in patents and technologies! Google is one of SVOX’s customers for TTS (Hey – Nuance was one of the founding members of the Open Handset Alliance that developed Android!), but with Google’s hiring and acquisitions in the speech space, the writing was on the wall for SVOX to go the way of Nuance, and get designed out of Android for Google’s internal solutions. By keeping SVOX away from Apple and Google, Nuance has the opportunity to keep two huge customers (i.e. Google from SVOX and Apple) from jumping ship…but I still think it will happen eventually!
  6. Automotive Industry Contacts. I read the press release about advancing “the proliferation of voice in the automotive market”, and accelerating “the development of new voice capabilities that enable natural, conversational interactions” and about SVOX supplying the Client for Client/Server hybrid solutions. None of that market-speak makes my list. I think the technologies that SVOX had were pretty redundant to what Nuance has. SVOX had better customer relations and accounts in automotive…that was really the driver!

Anyways…I suspect the acquisition was a good deal for Nuance and its investors, and probably a GREAT deal for SVOX and its investors. Nuance’s market price didn’t seem to move much, but maybe it will once the price is disclosed. I commend and encourage Nuance to cut the lawsuits…one of them could bite back a lot worse than the pain of losing employees!

Todd
sensoryblog@sensoryinc.com